There is a candidate running for her party's presidential nomination, who is well-known in the party and nationwide. She ran in the primaries eight years ago and lost. She came in second in delegates to a unique figure who was able to energize the party's base while gaining acceptance from the party's pragmatic wing. After losing the nomination, despite some policy differences with the nominee, she was invited to serve in his administration, and did so loyally and (in the administration's view) effectively. Now, eight years later, she is running for president again.
This time, her campaign is positioning itself as the primary defender of the administration's legacy. On almost all fronts, but especially on domestic policy, she tries to be the candidate who will continue the president's policies with the most continuity. Despite this, she is unable to energize the party's base as the president did eight years ago. Instead, she is dogged by concerns that she is too moderate, tied to the establishment, and willing to compromise.
Paradoxically, despite the fact that her policies seem closest to what the incumbent would do if he was awarded a third term, she is struggling hard to get the support of many of the ideological activists who supported him.
This, of course, describes Hillary Clinton's situation this year. But it also fairly accurately describes George H.W. Bush's circumstances when he ran for president in 1988. Bush had been the strongest rival to Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination in 1980. He lost, yet was asked to join the ticket as vice president. In accepting the vice presidency and serving in the administration, Bush outwardly accepted all of its policies. Yet he faced skepticism in 1988 from some Republicans who doubted his commitment to movement conservatism.
There is also a rough analog in the way family connections undermine their support among the party's ideological base. Bush's father, Prescott Bush, had been a Connecticut senator in the 1950s and early '60s who had all the characteristics of a liberal Northeast Republican of that era. He supported Planned Parenthood, voted to censure Joseph McCarthy, and was ideologically much more sympathetic to Nelson Rockefeller than to Barry Goldwater.
In Clinton's case, she is tied to her husband, who despite presiding over eight years of peace and prosperity as president was connected in the 1980s and 1990s to the moderate faction of the Democratic Party. Bill Clinton served as chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization active in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s in trying to make the Democratic Party more centrist and electable.
He and his running mate, Al Gore, identified in 1992 as a "New Democrats" to distinguish themselves from the party's liberals. And it wasn't just a difference in labeling. They took more conservative positions than many Democrats on issues like taxes (raise them only on the wealthy, lower them on the middle class), death penalty (support), and welfare (calling for "ending welfare as we know it").
For Hillary Clinton in 2016 and George H.W. Bush in 1988, the main challenge is convincing their party that despite their histories, they can represent their party's current ideology. In both cases, the party's ideology has evolved during the incumbent president's term. By 1988, much more than in 1980, Republicans expected that their nominee would be pro-life and favor low taxes over balanced budgets. In 2016, much more than in 2008, Democrats expect their nominee to support things like criminal justice reform and immigration reform, and both support the legal progress in LGBT rights made in the past eight years and favor moving on to new measures like a national Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
There is less of an elite consensus on this, but I think, among Democratic primary and caucus voters, there is even firmer opposition than there was in 2008 to involvement in Iraq or any similar overseas troop commitment. President Obama asserted in his last State of the Union last week, to great applause on the Democratic side of the aisle, that we need to avoid future wars like Iraq. Opposition to these types of wars has also been a big applause line in Democratic debates.
On all these issues, Hillary Clinton's main weakness as a candidate is her need to convince Democratic voters that, despite the past positions she and her husband held on these issues, she supports where the party now stands. Even with her connections to the Obama administration — serving in it as secretary of state, hiring his former campaign staffers, receiving endorsements from his former supporters and donations from his former donors — it has been hard to convince voters that she has evolved with the party.
Of course, no analogy is exact, and there are many differences in the details between George H.W. Bush's situation and Hillary Clinton's. For instance, 1988, Bush faced five other candidates for the Republican nomination (Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Pete DuPont, and Alexander Haig), while Clinton faces only two (Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley). And Bush was then serving as Ronald Reagan's vice president, while Clinton served as secretary of state and only in Obama's first term.
Even with these differences, it is useful to examine Bush's struggles in 1988, as it might give some clues about Clinton's path this year. In 1988, in the invisible primary (the hunt for elite endorsements before the primaries and caucuses begin) Bush secured just over 50 percent of the endorsements made by major Republican officeholders, with Dole and Kemp winning 20 percent each and the last 10 percent scattered among the remaining candidates (data from The Party Decides).
Bush faced serious challenges in early states from two candidates with better conservative bone fides: Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. Sen. Dole had long been known as a leader of the conservative faction of Republicans on Capitol Hill. He had been added to the ticket as Gerald Ford's vice presidential candidate in 1976 to provide strong conservative balance to Ford's Midwestern moderate Republicanism after Ford almost lost the nomination to Ronald Reagan. Pat Robertson, a minister and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, was a true believer in the Christian right movement that became a core part of the Republican coalition when Reagan was elected in 1980.
Both Dole and Robertson threatened Bush because they had long histories of supporting forms of conservatism that (under Reagan) now dominated the Republican Party, but that Bush and his family had a history of standing apart from until Bush became Reagan's running mate.
Despite all his institutional advantages as a sitting vice president with more than twice the endorsements of any other candidate, Bush finished a distant third in Iowa, with only 19 percent of the vote, behind Dole with 37 percent and Robertson with 25 percent. The polls showed the New Hampshire primary to be a very close race between Dole and Bush. But after an intense exchange of negative advertising at the end of the campaign, Bush defeated Dole 38 percent to 29 percent.
As the primary season hopped across the country after New Hampshire, Bush moved into a dominant position. Bush was especially strong in the South, winning South Carolina and every Southern state that voted on "Super Tuesday," making his nomination inevitable.
Hillary Clinton's success in the invisible primary exceeds Bush's. She has won almost 100 percent of endorsements from major Democratic elected officials. Yet she faces a strong challenge from Bernie Sanders, a self-described "democratic socialist" senator from Vermont. Sanders has the advantage of supporting LGBTQ rights his whole career (going back to the 1970s). He opposed welfare reform in the 1990s and voted against the 1996 reform bill that Bill Clinton signed. Sanders also voted against the Patriot Act in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2002, both of which Hillary Clinton supported.
On a series of issues where a more conservative or moderate stance seemed prudent and acceptable to Democratic primary voters in past decades, the more liberal position is now the dominant Democratic stance. On almost all of these topics, Sanders was liberal all along, while Clinton is playing catch-up.
Clinton's position in Iowa and New Hampshire is now looking increasingly precarious. Clinton leads Sanders by just 3 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics Iowa polling average and trails Sanders by 13 points in the New Hampshire polling average. No one can know for certain what the future will hold. History suggests that the Iowa and New Hampshire polls often swing wildly in the days before people go to the polls. But if the history of George H.W. Bush provides any guide, candidates in Hillary Clinton's position can face major challenges in these two states, even if they eventually prevail.