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[Publisher's Note]

Clinton Caution

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"As far as substance, there was none -- just the usual Clinton caution and excruciatingly scripted bromides designed to offend as few people as possible."

A version of this column originally ran in the Providence Journal on September 17, 2015.

I don’t go in much for mainstream political chatter, but watching Hillary Clinton interviewed by Andrea Mitchell two weeks ago made me straighten up and pay attention. Clinton is running on empty, and she’s probably headed for defeat in the general election—that is, if she makes it through the Democratic primaries.

It’s not what Clinton said in answer to Mitchell’s robotic questions about her emails, or anything else she talked about. As far as substance, there was none—just the usual Clinton caution and excruciatingly scripted bromides designed to offend as few people as possible. More distressing was that her energy level was as low as her authenticity, and this is bad news for anyone who dreads a restoration of the Bush dynasty.

Donald Trump, as my friend Dan Janison has written, is more professional wrestling act than candidate for president. The mob will tire of his show, while the most right-wing candidates fight over thin slices of the angry Republican electorate. Bored political journalists forget that a small minority of party activists and officeholders select nominees and, thus, organization men (and women) are always favored over irregulars.

The consummate regular in the race is Jeb Bush—he and his family, like Clinton’s, are owed more debts than any other candidate. The question for most party functionaries is not what a candidate stands for but whether he or she can deliver patronage and money after the election. The Bushes and Clintons can be counted on to take care of the party faithful. Bernie Sanders, the “socialist” who caucuses with the Democrats, is not a party man.

Of course, in a general-election campaign, some real issues come to the fore. But with Hillary and Jeb both hugging the center-right, loyal first to their rich donors, it will come down to personalities and impressions. Bland and stumbling though he is, Bush has more vigor than Clinton, and his biggest negative, his foolish brother’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq, is canceled out by Senator Clinton’s vote supporting it. Moreover, it’s easier for Jeb to dissociate himself from W. than for Hillary to hide from Bill, without whom she doesn’t exist politically. In the battle of the spouses, Jeb’s Mexican-Catholic wife Columba has no negatives (unless you really dislike Mexicans) and is a better vote-getter than corrupted and corrupting Bill Clinton.

So who could beat Jeb Bush? I think former Sen. Jim Webb would be the most effective opponent and I hope he gets a fair hearing. He is free of the Iraq taint, smart on foreign policy, and unswiftboatable by dint of his Vietnam military service and his son’s service in Iraq. He leans left and populist on economic policy and can speak to the white working class.

But I have another, perhaps more pragmatic idea to repulse Jeb Bush: Al Gore. Specifically, a Gore-Elizabeth Warren ticket. Gore is a party man who, sadly, did dirty work for the Clintons when he was vice president. Very much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party’s rightward shift during the 1980s and 1990s, Gore labored to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, most notably with his cynical destruction of Ross Perot in their famous CNN debate on Larry King. He was an aggressive hawk on Iraq and Saddam before 9/11 and he supported the worst of President Clinton’s deregulation initiatives, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.

But since Gore had the 2000 election stolen from him—in former Gov. Jeb Bush’s state of Florida as well as in William Rehnquist’s Supreme Court—I believe he has changed. While establishment Democrats and the Clintons conspired in 2003 to destroy the insurgent Howard Dean, Gore enthusiastically endorsed him. His 2006 documentary about global warming was a sincere attempt to sound an alarm that now rings loudly in this summer of drought, forest fires, and record heat.

More importantly, he’s already beaten the Bushes. The party regulars would accept Gore, and left-leaning Sanders supporters would rally to a Warren vice presidency, creating a perfectly balanced ticket. Clinton can’t make a woman her running mate, and the party bosses would never accept the outlier Sanders. If the Democrats want to keep the White House, it’s time to dump Clinton.

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