• Politics

A GOP Identity Crisis Eases the Path for Hillary Clinton

4 minute read

In mid-October, the astrology of the 2016 presidential campaign began to change: Clinton rising; Republicans waning. The arcs intersected at the House Special Benghazi Committee hearings, where chairman Trey Gowdy seemed a visitor from an alternate universe, a place where the musings of Sidney Blumenthal–a lesser Clinton courtier unknown to most Americans–counted for more than the existential question: Why on earth did we attack Libya in the first place?

Latter-day Republicans have a tendency to get lost finding conspiracies in their own entrails, but the Benghazi weirdness seemed truly incomprehensible–after watching for nine hours, I still have no idea what the interrogators were after. And Benghazi seemed a refraction of the increasingly bizarre Republican nomination race, in which Ben Carson seems to be levitating past Donald Trump. Indeed, I can’t remember a time when I’ve experienced the gnashing of so many prominent Republican teeth. “Who would you vote for,” a leading Republican asked me, “Trump or Bernie Sanders?” “Who would you vote for,” I asked in return, “Trump or Hillary?”

As his campaign has progressed, Trump’s position on some key issues seems to be to the left of Clinton’s–on the Iraq War, especially–and in her general neighborhood on others: taxation of the rich, entitlements, universal health care. He is a nightmare of chainsaw-massacre proportions to Establishment conservatives. Their panic may be premature, though. This election reminds me of this exact moment in the 2004 Democratic nominating process when Howard Dean was a house afire and John Kerry seemed deader than Jeb Bush does now. “I’d love to see Dean get the nomination,” Karl Rove, who was running George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, told me in November 2003. “But he won’t. Americans don’t elect angry Presidents.” It is a basic truth: Any candidacy based solely on adrenaline will inevitably crash. Trump should check with Dr. Carson about the chemistry, or just ask Howard Dean, who had a far more righteous cause for anger than Trump–the Iraq War–but no second act.

All of which makes Jeb Bush’s behavior in the days before the Colorado debate seem myopic and self-destructive. Americans may not like angry candidates, but they are utterly allergic to whiners. If there are a “lot of really cool things” Bush can do instead of running for President, perhaps he should go do them. That would be a shame. Bush has emerged as the candidate for the opposite of those who are “low-information” voters–perhaps we could call them “too much information” voters. He has laid out some heavy-duty policy proposals, some with real merit, but none with the zing of a bumper sticker. He seems a thoughtful guy, but without fists or elbows. With Bush and Trump on the wane, Marco Rubio seems poised to be the flavor of the next month.

Does the Republican identity crisis mean that Hillary Clinton is our next President? She certainly looks solid–especially when she’s in Benghazi mode. At one point in the hearings, her ability to put the Libya situation in context, comparing it with her near-simultaneous actions to tamp down an extremely dangerous situation in neighboring Tunisia, left any non-Hillary-hating observer thinking: This woman is cool in crisis, tough and prepared. There are no more important qualities in a President.

But Clinton is not always in Benghazi mode. Her attempts to deliver hortatory political speeches, as at the Iowa Democratic Party meeting a couple of days after the hearing, still come across as harsh and unconvincing. (For those who believe this is a sexist observation, I would note that both Carly Fiorina and Elizabeth Warren really know how to give a fighting speech.) Another problem for Clinton is her failure to stand up to the Democrats’ base on any issue. Her husband gained credibility, and ultimately the presidency, by defying the left on welfare reform, trade and crime. The current Democratic base isn’t nearly as barbaric as the extreme right but remains trapped within the corroded industrial-age structures of government and manufacturing. Clinton’s recent defense of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a disaster in need of reform, is a sad demonstration of a standard liberal default position: that everything in government is just hunky-dory. All we need is more money.

The ability to stand athwart your strongest supporters is a character issue, especially among the people who actually decide elections–the slowly evaporating middle. Clinton is on the rise because her debating and congressional-hearing personas are tough as titanium, but her political persona remains vaguely vinyl. Americans tend not to like polyester Presidents, either.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com