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Will accomplishment deficit be Hillary's undoing?

Jonah Goldberg

By Jonah Goldberg

Published May 22, 2015

  Will accomplishment deficit be Hillary's undoing?

There are plenty of reasons to believe 2016 will be a very ugly election year. Here's one more.

Bloomberg Politics convened a focus group of Iowa Democrats. Nearly all loved Hillary. "She's a bad mama-jama," said one female participant. Bad mama-jama is good, by the way. The woman explained that Clinton is "not afraid to step up" or "afraid to say, 'No. I don't want to do it that way. I'm going to do it this way.'"

Another participant insisted that Clinton is a "better woman than I am" -- a great standard for selecting a president, to be sure -- because of Clinton's ability to weather various scandals and humiliations.

The awkward part came when Bloomberg's Mark Halperin asked the room, "What did she accomplish that you consider significant as secretary of state?"

The answers -- or rather, the replies, since no one had an answer -- were awkward to say the least.

"I really can't name anything off the top of my head," one squirming Democrat admitted.

"Give me a minute. Give me two minutes. Go to someplace else," another Iowa Democrat pleaded.

A third let the uncomfortable silence play out for as long as she could before confessing, "No."

One young man offered the most grudging endorsement he could. "She's been at a high level in numerous offices for about 25 years now. It's either going to be that or it's going to be Scott Walker ... destroying America's unions. She's not perfect. But she's been in the eye for a long time -- in the public's eye -- and you're going to have some stuff on her. But, you know, she has great policies and she knows how to get stuff done."

So, the best case for her is that she weathered a lot of scandals and, to borrow Robert Hoover's defense of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity in "Animal House," Hillary Clinton has "a long tradition of existence."

Supporters also said she knows how to get stuff done but can't name anything she's actually, you know, done. This is like praising a coach for knowing how to win football games but not being able to cite any actual wins.

In fairness to them, Clinton can't name anything significant she did as secretary of state either -- because she didn't do anything very significant.

The consensus inside the Beltway is that this isn't a big problem for Clinton. I'm not so sure.

The Beltway view does have merit. Most voters are party-line voters. The young man who hates Scott Walker will vote for whichever candidate isn't Scott Walker. (Likewise, Republicans will likely vote for whichever candidate isn't Hillary Clinton.) John Kerry had no significant accomplishments to his credit after decades in the Senate -- and yet, in 2004, he got more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate ever had up until then.

Still, Clinton has a problem. While partisan Democrats will surely vote for her, their difficulty -- and her difficulty -- in citing any meaningful accomplishments may not play well with independents and swing voters.

Personally, I think swing voters are a mixed bag. We don't have a formal parliamentary system in this country, but in reality we vote for parties, not personalities. Do you want these 5,000 appointees running the government or those 5,000 appointees? If you're a liberal Democrat, you want liberal policies implemented by liberal officials. If you're a conservative Republican, you want conservative policies implemented by conservative officials.

Swing voters put more emphasis on particular personalities. They also put a premium on their own self-conception as independent thinkers. Thus, they give a lot of weight to things like accomplishments, if for no other reason than to justify their "swing voterness." If neither Clinton nor her fans can offer evidence she's effective, that could hurt her among swing voters in swing states.

And that's why the 2016 election will be an ugly affair. Going by her own fan base in Iowa, Clinton is not a fresh face. She has more baggage than the luggage-claim level at O'Hare Airport. Her record amounts to surviving scandals, many of her own making. Her most compelling selling point is that she's a woman. And her strategists have decided she needs to energize the "Obama coalition" of low-information voters.

All of this points to a general election strategy of demonizing her opponent -- whoever he (or she) might be. If you can't make the case for yourself, you make the case against your opponent. And the Clintons certainly have a long record of accomplishment in doing exactly that.

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Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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