Hillary Clinton is a shoe-in for her party's presidential nomination because of Barack Obama's failures. But those failures might keep her from getting the job. Her husband's "law of politics" is that elections are always about the future, but she's stuck in the past.
In 2008, Obama pandered to liberal hopes while Clinton appealed to their good sense. Obama promised miracles and magic. Clinton promised more homework.
"Cynicism" was Obama's real opponent, he explained. And he used Clinton as a stand-in for it. She played her part, pointing out that the Civil Rights Act got through Congress because of LBJ's hard work, not Martin Luther King's speeches. She insisted that politics was toil, not performance art.
And, as we have learned from a president who so often thinks giving a speech is a substitute for solving a problem, she had the better argument. One need only look at the reaction from Democrats to President Obama's handling of the VA scandal to see that even they would trade some inspirational claptrap for a bit more old-fashioned competence.
That attitude helps Clinton immensely. Burned by disappointment, many liberals want to vote with their heads, not their hearts, this time around.
And the Hillary Industrial Complex is ready to exploit that sentiment. The HIC is the vast network of loyalists, retreads, activists, pols, hacks, fans (in and out of the press), Friends of Bill and, of course, Friends of Hillary who want to see a Clinton restoration. They are waiting for her to run like 19th century land speculators anticipating news that the railroad will go past their lots. Would you want to be left with 500,000 "Ready for Hillary" bumper stickers in your garage? (It's a solid rule of business that you've made a poor investment if a Hillary Duff comeback is your Plan B.)
The Hillary Industrial Complex must be an awesomely hard thing to say no to. It would feel like telling your royal entourage, after years of buildup, that you're going to decline the throne and live a quiet life in the country. These remoras are counting on her, not just for jobs and access but for vindication; "We were right to back Hillary from the beginning!"
Alas, leaning on your entourage for advice is never a great idea. They may think Clinton would be a fresh start, but will normal voters not similarly invested in her? Americans almost never reward a party with a third consecutive term in the White House, and when they do, it's because they want more of the same. Anyone want to wager on how much of a "more of the same" mood America will be in come 2016?
Clinton's clearly not taking any chances. In her first campaign-style speech on the economy last week at the New America Foundation, Clinton mentioned Obama exactly once. (He's worked hard, she said.) She referenced her husband a half-dozen times and talked at great length about how we need to return to the policies of the 1990s. (The Clintons remain convinced that the 1990s boom was a function of Bill's expert tweaking of the dials and knobs on the master control board of the economy.) It wasn't even subtle. No mention of the stimulus, cash-for-clunkers, Obamacare or Dodd-Frank. As economics writer James Pethokoukis noted, "It was like Hillary was placed in suspended animation in 2008 and just recently revived to give a stump speech about the evils of the Bush tax cuts."
Not only was there precious little talk of Obama, there was precious little talk of her four years on Obama's once-vaunted "team of rivals." She listed none of her major accomplishments as secretary of state, probably because she had none. (She did open with a reference to some bureaucratic reshuffling on her watch.) No serious student of foreign policy thinks our strategic standing in the world improved on Clinton's watch as America's chief diplomat. That alone doesn't mean she was a terrible secretary of state -- lots of people in that job tread water. But it doesn't inspire either. Meanwhile, the most famous thing she did in that job was nothing -- on the night of the Benghazi attack. She also traveled a lot, which is nice.
You can understand why Clinton might want to pretend that the Obama years never happened. I certainly get why she wants to run on her husband's record rather than her own. But I can't see how this is adds up to a compelling message outside the Hillary Industrial Complex, which may be stuck with a lot of bumper stickers.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.