LOS ANGELES – August is a funny month in presidential politics. It’s supposed to be a quiet time, a time when nothing happens, when people are on vacation, eating hot dogs, watching baseball and not politics.
But in many cases in recent years, August is the month when elections are decided, whether we realize it at the time or not.
Two examples stand out. In 1988, August was the month Michael Dukakis decided to stay in Massachusetts being governor rather than going on the road to campaign for president. In 2004, August was the month John Kerry went windsurfing and made the fatal decision that the Swift Boat attacks weren’t worth responding to.
Of course, both of these examples date from the August before the election, not the August before the primaries. But in a race in which everything has been pushed forward, with timetables for primaries and the competition for funds—not to mention the attention being paid to presidential politics—accelerated beyond anyone’s expectation, the August that turns out to count most may be the one we’re living through right now.
Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a growing expectation, reflected both in polls and in conversations with people on all sides of the aisle, from far left to far right, that Hillary Clinton is going to be not only the Democratic nominee for president, but the next president of the United States.
Two years ago, when I wrote a book entitled “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” many, if not most people, including some of my closest friends, thought I was out of my mind. I’ve never been out on a book tour in which I felt so continuously under assault, and came home quite so shell-shocked. It wasn’t just the Hillary haters who came at me; it was also Democrats, many of them fans of the former First Lady, who just didn’t believe it was possible that she could win.
“How bad was it out there,” Hillary herself asked me by way of greeting, at a luncheon the day after I got home. “Bad,” I said, in what was one of the great understatements of my time.
It’s not bad anymore. Something, actually some things, have changed. Hillary has steadily widened her lead in national polls over her closest competitor, Barack Obama. In California, she has opened up a stunning 30 point lead, not an easy thing to turn around. Equally important, in match ups against Republicans in key states that Hillary was losing a few months ago, she is now winning. In Florida, for example, she beats Giuliani, rather than the other way around.
Running for president may look easy, but it isn’t. You give four or five speeches a day, answer dozens if not hundreds of questions, and one misstep can blow up in your face. Hillary was the only candidate who fully understood this, going in. Everyone else has made mistakes.
There was Rudy Giuliani claiming he’d done as much as the relief workers who toiled for months in the bad air at Ground Zero, and are now paying for it with their health. Not exactly. Nor was it a very smart move to suggest that his wife, who he was apparently dating while still married to his second wife, and who is at least partly responsible for his estrangement from his children, would be sitting in on Cabinet meetings, which only made her a more legitimate focus for attack.
There was Mitt Romney claiming that his sons’ work on his campaign was somehow equivalent to other people’s sons and daughters risking their lives in Iraq.
There was Fred Thompson, who should have announced months ago, unprepared to deal with the inevitable stories about his past as a lobbyist, not to mention the role of his wife. He hasn’t even announced yet, and he’s already been through three campaign managers, which is not exactly the way to begin a campaign.
Hillary doesn’t make mistakes.
The biggest threat to Hillary on the Democratic side, Barack Obama, hasn’t gone from a first date to a second one. He makes a great first impression, with his message of hope and change, but every misstep he makes on foreign policy only underlines the fundamental question of whether he has the experience to be president.
Romney’s crack that he went from being Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in the space of a week, because of his willingness to meet with our enemies and attack our friends, was the kind of line that sticks, and that does Hillary’s work for her.
Notwithstanding his success in fundraising, Obama has yet to translate money into support, and if his numbers keep dropping, as they have in recent months, it won’t matter how much money he has.
John Edwards’ message on poverty has been largely overshadowed by the attention paid to his wife’s attacks on Ann Coulter and the price he pays for hair cuts; his focus on poverty seems to be at odds both with his own lifestyle (his new, big house has been nicknamed “Uncle John’s cabin”) not to mention the much larger concern of most Americans with finding a candidate they can trust to be tough enough to fight terrorism.
Moreover, the presence of both Obama and Edwards in the so-called first tier of candidates nicely divides whatever anti-Hillary vote there is, and leaves the second tier candidates all but totally ignored by the press.
The stage is set for Hillary not only to win, but to win early; even if Edwards manages to out- organize her in Iowa, she will come back a week later in New Hampshire and march from there. The old days when a candidate could win Iowa and then become the bright new face with time to capitalize on momentum are long past in the accelerated calendar; besides, Edwards is a former vice presidential nominee, not a new face yet to be discovered.
If Hillary is set to win early and easily, which is the best way to win the presidency, the Republicans could easily be in for a much longer and uglier contest. The most likely scenario has Romney winning (or buying, depending on your perspective) Iowa and then winning New Hampshire; if a Massachusetts governor can’t win New Hampshire, whose biggest media market is Boston, he’s in big trouble.
But then the campaign moves to South Carolina, where Fred Thompson will be the local boy, then to Florida, where Rudy should be able to score in a state rich with ex-New Yorkers. The reality is that the Republicans could come out of the extra-super Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 without a clear winner, and with a choice between a Mormon from Massachusetts whose religious views many Southern Baptists find unacceptable, and a New Yorker whose been married three times and is pro-choice and pro-gay rights.
Thompson was supposed to save them from this, but there’s no evidence to date that he’s in any shape to do so. Not a pretty picture for the GOP.
Of course, it’s only August.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.