It’s a given among the tired, the poor and the voters tossed in the tempest of the presidential campaign that the noisy masses, yearning to breathe free of the smoke of battle, must resign themselves to the latest inevitability of Hillary Clinton: Donald Trump can’t beat her, neither can Ted Cruz, and John Kasich is a pipe dream.
It’s pure bunkum, of course. There’s a long list of inevitable presidents who never saw the inside of the White House unless they got there on the congressional tour, and even then they never got upstairs. The only way they could get to the private quarters was to rent the Lincoln bedroom from Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Thomas E. Dewey was so inevitable in 1948 that Gallup quit polling a month before the election, figuring it was a waste of money to keep asking the same question and getting the same answer. Harry S. Truman was finished. Michael Dukakis was measuring the draperies for the Oval Office in 1998 when George Bush the Elder dispatched him to the tank. John Kerry could smell the coffee at the White House mess when George Bush the Younger sent his not-so-swift dream boat to the bottom, Purple Hearts and all. Hillary Clinton has yet to make it to the White House on her own, and she has only a pass to the Democratic National Convention of ‘08 among her souvenirs to paste to her boudoir mirror.
Maybe the second time is the charm and she won’t have to wait for the third. Or maybe not. Donald Trump is smarter than a lot of people, particularly among the Republican elites and the pundits forever trying to recycle the conventional wisdom, imagine. Neither is Ted Cruz necessarily lost in the tall weeds of the liberal imagination. He has shown a dogged persistence in his pursuit so far. John Kasich, despite his miserable showing before and after Ohio, has demonstrated that he can carry the mail, if only he can find the ZIP code to put him on the right road for the destination.
The Donald is nearly everybody’s favorite to succumb to Hillary’s captivating charm, her sunny optimism, her seductive magic that makes everybody love her so. He doesn’t like Mexicans, and some of them will probably vote against him, some more than once, and the deadlier rap is that he doesn’t like women. He’s getting help now in how to organize a charm offensive, how to channel Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” campaign that put Jimmy Carter to rout against all expectations by the wise heads.
The Donald as a happy warrior, as FDR famously called Al Smith in 1928, stretches credulity to the breaking point, but a man who converted millions to billions in a place as unforgiving at New York, has demonstrated that he can learn. “He has to show that he’s not just angry,” says a strategist for George Pataki, the former governor of New York, “but smart.”
A smart politician, like a smart running back or a Hall of Fame infielder, makes his own luck, and a winner, whether in the World Series or the Super Bowl, is always endowed with a lucky break and sometimes two. The not-so-soft bigotry of no expectations often helps conservative candidates against pious liberals. You might even call it an act of God.
When the engineer of Tom Dewey’s campaign train inadvertently backed the train into a crowd at one whistle-stop, the governor, no doubt thinking he was cultivating concern for the crowd, cried angrily that “that engineer should be shot.” In a nonce he revealed himself to be the merciless prosecutor he was. When Michael Dukakis allowed himself to be photographed in a tank and a helmet, both too big for him, he was forever after seen as the little boy in his daddy’s shoes (and hat).
God and the FBI may have an indictment in store to roil the campaign, but even if not Benghazi and the top-secret emails she opened to hackers will dog Hillary all the way to November. Her coughing fits — she suffered another on Monday that cut short an important radio interview in Manhattan — continue to raise concerns about her health. It is true that indictments and convictions won’t necessarily disqualify her in Gotham (it’s a New York value), but it won’t enhance her pristine appeal elsewhere. Hillary would no doubt go into the post-conventions campaign the favorite, but carefully plotted political campaigns, like military campaigns that might have been designed by Stonewall Jackson, are outdated with the first shot fired.
Hillary is probably the way to bet, but it’s too soon to lay down a bet. The Republican elites should keep this in mind.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Washington Times.