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Hillary Clinton’s problem: she can’t run against Washington

Clinton runs in New Hampshire. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Hillary Clinton’s inability to say whether she stands for or against approving the Keystone Pipeline reveals the problem she has running as a candidate of change.

During a New Hampshire town hall broadcast on August 1, she was asked about her position on Keystone.

She replied, “I can’t answer it. … This is likely to be an issue no matter what the president decides. It is likely to be a subject of a lawsuit.”

Her opponents jumped on this as another example of Hillary Clinton’s propensity for obfuscation. But it’s worse than that. Clinton’s problem is that she represents the party – and was part of the administration – that has controlled the White House for two terms. Her excuse that she cannot take a stand on Keystone because it might go to court appears weak. There will likely be court cases on Obamacare and immigration, too – both of which she has taken positions on.

As the author of many books on American political history, including the forthcoming Future Right: Forging a New Republican Majority, I’m fascinated by how presidential candidates seeking the nomination after their party has controlled the White House have balanced promising new ideas with defending the past.

Running against the status quo

Successful presidential candidates from the earliest days in American politics ran as outsiders and against the status quo. Trying to balance support for your party’s leader, while claiming to pursue a new agenda, presents a particular dilemma for any candidate following on the heels of a two-term president from one’s own party.

Clinton makes friends at the Iowa State Fair. Joshua Lott/REUTERS

Clinton cannot reject six years of her party’s control of the White House without alienating her party’s base.

On that August day in New Hampshire, Clinton likely knew that recent polls show 41% of Americans supporting Keystone, while 20% of Americans oppose it. Polls also show that Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the building of the pipeline. So when Clinton was directly asked about the pipeline, she decided to equivocate – offending neither her base nor the general American public.

To get elected, Clinton needs to present herself as something more than a continuation of Barack Obama’s administration. John McCain learned the difficulty of following a two-term president, George W Bush, in 2008. McCain’s strained relationship with the Bush administration was quite well-known among Beltway insiders. It did not matter. The Obama campaign painted McCain as a third-term Bush candidate, as detailed by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their book Game Change.

Take Nixon, for example

Dick Nixon. Michael Urban/Reuter

Richard Nixon found himself in a similar situation in 1960.

Dwight D Eisenhower had held the presidency since 1953, when he won election and reelection in landslides. While Eisenhower remained popular in the 1960s, many voters were looking for change.

Kennedy presented a fresh face and vitality, which contrasted with the ho-hum last years of Eisenhower. Kennedy hammered Nixon on the economy, which had recently suffered a recession; the supposed “missile gap” between the Soviets and the United States, and Eisenhower’s alleged unwillingness to confront a communist takeover in Cuba.

Nixon couldn’t adopt the strategy of distancing himself from Eisenhower. The president was still popular in the general public, and Eisenhower might have even won reelection himself if his party had not passed a constitutional amendment preventing third terms.

Successes and failures

Of course, some two-term presidents have been able to pass on the White House to candidates from their parties.

George Washington did it with John Adams in 1796. Andrew Jackson was succeeded by Martin Van Buren in 1836. Theodore Roosevelt – although not technically a two-term president because he first succeeded to the White House following William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 – to William Howard Taft in 1908. Ronald Reagan was followed by George H W Bush in 1988.

What did these success stories have in common? They all followed presidents who enjoyed high favorability with the general public.

Indeed, Nixon almost followed Eisenhower’s popularity to victory as well. His loss to Kennedy was one of the narrowest in American history, with Kennedy pulling in just 112,827 more votes nationwide. The outcome may have been different if the popular Ike had campaigned for Nixon. Instead, Minnie Eisenhower insisted her husband – who had suffered two heart attacks – stay off the campaign trail.

This history suggests a challenge for Clinton.

While Obama enjoys great popularity in his own party, his unfavorable ratings in the general public hover around 48% to 51%. What’s more, over 60% of voters think American is on the wrong track. This suggests that many voters want to see a change in Washington, and they want the new president, whomever he or she may be, to pursue new directions.

Clinton, while proposing some new policies to address the nation’s problems, is pursuing themes out of Obama’s playbook: restore the middle class, overcome income inequality, restrain Wall Street plutocrats, address problems of racism. These are legitimate issues, but will such themes make good sense to highly polarized, ideologically divided voters?

Recent Pew Research shows that the electorate is more divided than ever. More voters are declaring themselves either as committed “conservatives” or “liberals,” and they stick to their beliefs in the voting booth.

In this polarized environment, Hillary Clinton must figure out a way to distance herself from Obama – without distancing herself from his base. Such a strategy means rallying already aligned party voters to her. The result may be further polarization in the electorate.

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