Susan Estrich: Politics Is Not Fair

Hillary Clinton is right.

She gets the first question more often than Obama, and usually the toughest ones. Then again, as everyone was very, very quick to point out after Tuesday’s debate, she also jumps for it first when it’s a toss-up.

Of course they did the count right away. When it comes to Hillary Clinton, there’s no doubt that, whether it’s the first or second question, her response is likely to be subject to strict scrutiny, which, as we say in the law, tends to be strict in theory and fatal in fact, while her opponent gets judged by a sort of rational basis test that means if there's any conceivable version of what he's saying that makes sense, he gets a pass. And a pillow, as she joked in the debate Tuesday night, to make sure he's comfortable, although when Hillary tells a joke, she's more likely to be dissed as nasty and sarcastic than praised for her efforts at good humor.

As Jimmy Carter so famously said, life’s not fair. And if life’s not fair, politics isn’t even close.

What do people say when you ask them for words to describe Barack Obama?

I’ve tried it a number of times lately, and his campaign manager couldn’t come up with a much better script — charismatic, inspirational, fresh, articulate, committed, caring, unifying, change.

You may get one or two people suggesting a slight shortage of experience, but most of the adjectives are free of both substance and ideology, more like ones we use to describe those we pray to than vote for.

Hold your ears for the Hillary half.

Tough, ambitious, calculating, ruthless, cold, emotional, desperate, sexless, Mrs. Bill, Monica, rhymes with witch. You get my drift.

Occasionally, someone says smart, but it’s more likely to be calculating.

Now, you can point out that many of these words have gender undertones, to put it mildly, but if you do, you’re likely to get victim and whiner added to the list.

How did this happen? How can this be?

The fact is that Hillary started the race with a slew of negatives to deal with, and far from overcoming them, the toughness of the contest, the need for her to continually be fighting back and coming back, has done more to reenforce her negatives than eliminate them.

It’s a lot easy to be liked when you’re basking in victory than fighting off your obituary. People may root for underdogs, but not favorites gone south, at least not until, and unless they have paid their penance, and even then....

There is at least a generation or two of reporters who fell in love with Bill Clinton back in 1991 and then, either because they overdid it in the first instance, or because he couldn’t spend eight years courting them in the way he did in the campaign, or because eventually most relationships, especially between politicians and fawning reporters, head south, fell out of love with him.

Whether or not the country started this campaign with a healthy dose of Clinton antagonism/fatigue, there’s no question that the media did, and while at least some of them held it in check so long as it looked like their futures might be tied to theirs, it’s no exaggeration to say that there aren’t many reporters bemoaning the rough treatment the Clintons have received or second guessing their own roles in it.

It feels deserved. To them.

If he weren’t married to his opponent, it would be even more obvious that this year’s Bill Clinton is indeed Barack Obama.

Back in 1991, journalists of his generation fell for Clinton in much the same way their contemporaries today seem to swoon for Obama. The Kool-Aid was widely imbibed.

It helped Clinton survive early defeats, messy scandals, the Gennifer Flowers of it all, questions about experience and substance and what he really thought about Sister Souljah.

It wasn’t that Clinton didn’t deserve the admiration; he really was a much better candidate than most of the Democrats the media was used to covering, and he had that sense of being different and special in a way his now familiar wife does not.

But the bottom line is that Hillary is still a great candidate. She could be a great president.

If you actually listen to her answers in the debates, it’s clear that she brings to this race a level of understanding and experience and eloquence that should earn her praise even from skeptics.

It may, or may not, be enough. The voters in Ohio and Texas will decide that.

But if it isn’t, it won’t be because she lost fair and square, but because politics, as no one knows better than the Clintons, just doesn’t work that way.

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