Crystal balling

Hillary is coming to town. Kentucky Republicans, believing Sen. Clinton is the kiss of death for Democrats in the state, think her arrival here is an early visit from Santa. They profess to be salivating over the prospect of using photos of Democratic candidates with the wife of the former president. Methinks they protest too much, but only time will tell.

Yes, this is the best of times for Democrats, and yet it is possibly the worst of times. Republican popularity is at its post-Watergate nadir, but the Dems don’t appear to have a stable of imposing candidates ready to exploit the GOP’s weakened standing. Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s job approval rating is even lower than Bush’s, but there is no clear frontrunner to oppose him in 2007. After Jack Conway decided not to challenge 3rd district Rep. Anne Northup next year, she appears to be home free, even though polls show Americans now prefer a Democratic Congress by a large margin. Finally, Bush is trying his best to ensure a Democratic victory in 2008, but there is already panic among the out-of-power party about their next standard bearer.

And thus we return to Hillary Clinton, who, according to every poll, is the solid choice of Democrats to be their 2008 nominee. She attracts more than 40 percent of party regulars, almost four times the support for any of the three retreads — John Kerry, Al Gore and John Edwards — who finish second through fourth. And in spite of the fact that most polls indicate that a majority of American voters say they could vote for Hillary, she loses head-to-head matchups against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

Many Democrats, locked into conventional wisdom, say Hillary can’t lose the nomination but can’t win the election. (On the other hand, many Republicans believe McCain and Giuliani can’t lose the election but might not be able to win their party’s nomination.) When I hear that, I suggest the following scenario: Hillary says: “When Bill ran for president in 1992, he said it was a two-for-one deal; if you voted for him, you got both of us. I am telling you in 2008, it is once again a two-for-one deal; if you elect me, you get Bill as well.” Then Bill campaigns as if he’s running for president. Does that not seem like a formidable candidacy? (By the way, according to those in attendance at the Muhammad Ali Center gala opening last weekend, Bill Clinton received the most enthusiastic reception next to Ali. Furthermore, a Pew Center poll taken last month indicated Bill Clinton is favorably viewed by 62 percent of Americans. He left the presidency in 2001 with a 66-percent job approval rating.)

While it is fun to speculate about an election three years away, it is practically useless. So many events can change the electoral equation that it is even more fun to ponder all the what-ifs. For example, what if Bill Clinton were to die? Would Hillary become a more sympathetic candidate, or would she lose her biggest asset?

What if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade? If either pro-choice Republicans McCain and Giuliani is the party’s nominee, do pro-life GOP loyalists stay home? If a pro-life Republican gets the nomination, do suburban women flock to Hillary as the savior of abortion rights? Certainly such a scenario could mean several percentage points to a Clinton candidacy.

What if there is another terrorist attack on the United States? Would too many Americans think a woman is too soft to prosecute a military response? Or would Americans finally give up their fantasy that Republicans are tougher?
Or let’s say that most of the U.S. troops are out of Iraq and the frequency of terrorist attacks, both inside Iraq and around the world, substantially decreases. Does that put more focus on domestic issues and thus help Hillary, or does it restore faith in Republicans and boost her opponent’s chances?

Conversely, what happens to Hillary’s chances if U.S. troop strength is still in the 130,000 range, and casualties double to around 4,000? Since she still supports the U.S. presence, does she lose the nomination to an anti-war candidate? If she gets the nomination in this environment, does she then benefit from the public’s discontent, or does the Republican nominee have an opening to oppose the war and beat her? The possibilities are delicious.

And finally, what if the American people rise up next year and return control of Congress to the Democrats? That scenario could actually make things harder for Hillary or another Democratic candidate in 2008. After all, things couldn’t be better, or worse, for Republicans and Democrats than they are in this winter of our discontent. Makes it tough as the dickens to predict whether Hillary’s trip to Louisville will be a blessing or curse for Democrats.

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