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Handicapping A Hillary Run In 2016

May 28, 2014

Politico reports that Democrats are concerned about Hillary Clinton being anointed as the party's 2016 nominee. Among the worriers are Govs. Jerry Brown of California and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. In an NBC interview on May 8, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised the spirited primary contest in 2008 as "an extremely healthy process."

For their part, Team Clinton is working at creating a sense of inevitability, ridiculing suggestions that Mrs. Clinton won't run and suggesting that anyone who challenges her is really auditioning for a slot on MSNBC. In January, Politico magazine ran an excerpt from a new book, "HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton," which revealed that following her 2008 loss Mrs. Clinton's staff compiled an enemies list of those who had crossed her. The message for 2016 was: We'll remember—and you'll pay.

Though I take Mrs. Clinton at her word that she hasn't yet decided to run, odds are she will—and if she does, odds are she'll win the nomination. But nothing in politics is foreordained. Remember, she was thought inevitable in 2006 and lost.

Still, that comparison has limitations. Just 36% of Democrats in a June 4, 2006, Gallup Poll said they were most likely to support Mrs. Clinton for the nomination, whereas in an April 15, 2014, Fox News poll 69% of Democrats said they would prefer to see her as party's candidate.

Being in a better position now than she was in 2008 speaks less to Mrs. Clinton's strength than it does to the weakness of the Democratic field. Back then, Mrs. Clinton was measured against Al Gore, John Kerry and John Edwards, among others. Today, Mrs. Clinton's early competitors include Joe Biden, as well as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mr. Patrick, a collection of largely unknown or second-tier candidates.

The factors that made Mrs. Clinton vulnerable in her first bid still exist, and there are new ones. For starters, inevitability is often perceived as entitlement. Voters don't like being told someone is owed their support. This gave Barack Obama—an asterisk in most 2006-07 polls—his opening.

Voters also prefer new ideas and fresh vision, not just a trip down memory lane. Mrs. Clinton sounds like she's offering nostalgia as a platform by emphasizing how good things were after her husband was elected 22 years ago. Already, 40% in a March 2 Pew Poll said they do not believe Mrs. Clinton has "new ideas."

Her record will also be a problem. In a March 2 Pew Research Center/USA Today poll, 67% said they approved of Mrs. Clinton's job as secretary of state—but in an April 27 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll only 38% said they approved of Mr. Obama's handling of foreign affairs. The more Mrs. Clinton makes her time as secretary of state a central element of her appeal, the more scrutiny it will draw and the more likely Mr. Obama's poor standing will pull hers down.

Mrs. Clinton may understand this as she appears to be distancing herself from the president. For example, she told the American Jewish Committee last Wednesday that when she left office "we were positioned to really explore whether we had set the table well enough to see changes" in "Iran's behavior." In other words, she set things up. If things go bad, it's someone else's fault.

I'm skeptical that will work. Every week it becomes more obvious that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama's international record consists of debacles, disasters and missteps, including the failed "reset" with Russia, the imaginary "red line" in Syria, Benghazi, the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program, al Qaeda's resurgence outside of Afghanistan, strained relations with allies, and declining confidence in American leadership. This sorry record all occurred on Mrs. Clinton's watch. She owns it.

As front-runner, Mrs. Clinton has no reason to act like a candidate so early. The downside is that she may appear tired and overexposed just as the curtain rises on the 2016 primaries. Yet instead of lying low writing her book and publishing it next year, she's on her book tour and planning to campaign this fall for Democrats. Both Clintons have already raised money and campaigned for daughter Chelsea's mother-in-law—who nevertheless recently lost a congressional primary.

It's tough for a party to win a third White House term. Adlai Stevenson couldn't follow Truman, Nixon failed to replace Eisenhower, Humphrey fell short after LBJ, Ford couldn't win a full term once Nixon fell, and Al Gore didn't succeed Bill Clinton. Since candidates of unusual skills failed to win a presidential three-peat, Mrs. Clinton could face a rough road.

A version of this article appeared May 29, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Handicapping A Hillary Run In 2016 and online at WSJ.com.

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