The American presidency is Hillary Clinton's to lose. But that doesn't make her a shoo-in just yet
IF GREAT writers have a special insight into the souls of their countrymen, Hillary Clinton ought to be pleased. Philip Roth, one of the grandest old men of American letters, said last year that if anyone could lose 50 states for the Democrats, she could. This week he said he is no longer sure.
Mr Roth is hardly alone, either in his previous hatred for the former first lady or in his grudging new acceptance of her. It is still more than three months until the votes are cast in the first primaries, and over a year until the election. With no incumbent president or vice-president running, this should be the most open race for 80 years—but it certainly doesn't feel that way. Never mind the oddness, in a republic, of having Bushes and Clintons in charge for, possibly, 28 years on the trot: at the moment, the return of Hillary and Bill Clinton to the White House looks likelier than any alternative.
Mrs Clinton is polling an average of some 18 points clear of her nearest rival, Barack Obama, for the Democratic nomination, and one poll this week put her 33 points ahead. She leads solidly in all the early primary states except, crucially, Iowa (which matters because it comes first), where she has only an insignificant lead. In head-to-head polls, she now handily defeats any of her Republican rivals—and the Republicans are divided and demoralised. And this week she reversed the only measure on which she was trailing: in the third quarter of the year, she narrowly beat Mr Obama in raising campaign contributions. Mr Obama's superior fund-raising has been the main source of worry for the Clintonistas.
That does not mean she will win. Things could go wrong even in the primaries: ask Howard Dean, who seemed unstoppable for the Democratic ticket at Christmas 2003, before it all went wrong one night in Des Moines. There are plenty of things that could trip up Mrs Clinton, not least her husband. But barring some stumble or scandal, Americans will as usual decide on the candidates' merits, so the key to the election is to decide which qualities are most in demand this time around.
Top of the list surely must come competence—the attribute that has been most sorely lacking in the Bush administration, whether in the planning for post-war Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina or the management of the federal budget, which George Bush, like a reverse King Midas, has transmuted from a $240 billion surplus to a $160 billion deficit.
This is where Mrs Clinton currently leads the pack. True, she has never run anything herself, and her most notable foray into governance, her 1993-94 attempt to reform the American health-care system, was a catastrophe. But she has learned from watching the rest of her husband's presidency and, more recently, as a senator for New York, where she has been hard-working, consensual, effective and a little dull. Her campaign is superbly organised. In debates, her mastery of detail is remarkable. Her second plan for health-care reform is a much more moderate beast. And her Democratic rivals, Mr Obama and John Edwards, have much less experience than she does. On the Republican side, though, she faces a couple of effective governors and a former mayor of New York who turned that city's finances and crime rates around. She has yet to spell out much of her policy platform, including on such vital issues as tax or climate change; and has suspiciously meddlesome tendencies. She has already retreated alarmingly from her husband's commitment to free trade.
After competence must come toughness on security: traditionally a difficult area for Democrats, but less so after seven years of incompetent machismo. More than any of her Democratic rivals, Mrs Clinton has striven to neutralise the Republicans' advantage here. She has refused to apologise for her 2002 vote in favour of war with Iraq, and declines to commit herself to withdrawing the troops that are still there. But she was fully involved earlier this year in Democratic attempts to saddle the president with a deadline for quitting, and remains vulnerable to a Republican challenger. America's military weakness during the Clinton years has been overshadowed by the disaster under Bush; but it was under Mr Clinton that al-Qaeda took root and grew. That said, Americans want a tough president, not a psychopath: some of her Republican rivals remain worryingly bellicose.
Hillary the healer?
The third challenge for the next American president requires a different set of qualities: he or she will have to be a healer, both at home and abroad. America's standing in the world has been hugely damaged by the war, by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and by the high-handed way in which it has treated international bodies and agreements. The country needs a leader who will rebuild alliances. Hillary Clinton has no direct experience of this, but she has already declared that Bill would be her “ambassador to the world”. His charm may help make up for the superpower's tendency towards unilateralism; though foreign leaders may be as uncomfortable as some Americans with the idea of an unelected spouse swanning round the globe representing America.
At home, Mrs Clinton will need to narrow the divisions that the bitter partisanship of the Bush presidency has widened. She can be an unforgiving enemy—witness her campaign's hysterical reaction when a Hollywood mogul went over to Mr Obama's camp. In recent years she has not given much impression of feeling anyone's pain but her own, though she is a funnier and warmer speaker than she gets credit for. Can such a woman, whose “negatives” are among the highest in the business, reunite America? This doubt remains a big obstacle to a Clinton comeback.
For all her years of scheming and positioning, Mrs Clinton is not the finished article. No process is better at revealing flaws than American presidential elections. This newspaper, like many voters, will reserve judgment on this still often awkward and unknowable woman until it has seen more of her and her policies next year. But so far the Clinton comeback has been impressive. That is why it is her presidency to lose.