Are Republicans really 'incapable' of beating Hillary Clinton in 2016?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said over the weekend that his party could not rise to Mrs. Clinton's level. But she might not be as formidable as it appears.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File
This September file photo shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaking, in Kirkwood, Mo. On NBC's 'Meet the Press' Sunday, Mr. Gingrich flatly proclaimed his party 'incapable' of beating Hillary Clinton in a potential 2016 matchup.

If Hillary Rodham Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, would she be unbeatable? That’s the pronouncement of former GOP Speaker and onetime presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mr. Gingrich flatly proclaimed his party “incapable” of beating Mrs. Clinton in a potential 2016 matchup.

“[I]f their competitor in ‘16 is going to be Hillary Clinton – supported by Bill Clinton and presumably a still-relatively-popular President Barack Obama – trying to win that will be truly the Superbowl,” Gingrich said. “And the Republican Party today is incapable of competing at that level.”

Wow. We realize Gingrich has been rehabilitating himself as a Republican wise man of sorts – and for partisan pundits, provocative critiques of one’s own party are always a great way to generate attention (we’re writing about it, aren’t we?). But to blithely write off the chances of the entire 2016 GOP field a full four years in advance is eyebrow-raising, even for a politician as prone to “grandiose” (as he once put it) statements as Gingrich.

We agree that Clinton would, indeed, be a formidable candidate, but we’re not sure she’d be as impossible to beat as Gingrich suggests.

True, she’s currently more popular than every other candidate considering a run. Clinton holds a 60 percent favorability rating – higher than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (39 percent), Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (33 percent), Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (47 percent) and Vice President Joe Biden (46 percent), according to a new George Washington University/Politico Battleground poll. 

And she’d probably be unstoppable in a Democratic primary. As Democratic strategist and Clintonite James Carville said on ABC’s "This Week" Sunday, “Every Democrat I know says, ‘God, I hope she runs. We don't need a primary. Let's just go to post with this thing.’ ”

Frankly, the argument being made by some that Clinton was just as much a heavyweight front-runner in 2008 and still wound up losing the nomination ignores the fact that Barack Obama was at that point already an acknowledged political superstar. He didn’t have Clinton’s network or name recognition, but most insiders saw him as a once-in-a-generation kind of orator. He was clearly a real threat.

This time around, there’s no one like that on the Democratic horizon to challenge Clinton. To put it bluntly, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is no Barack Obama. Neither is New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. If Clinton wants the nomination, there's a good chance it will be hers for the taking.

But whether she’d have as easy a time in the general election is another matter. It’s not hard for us to envision Governor Bush or Senator Rubio or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie giving Clinton a real run for her money. Yes, the party has some fundamentals to work out. It needs to improve its image on immigration and women’s issues. It needs to raise its turnout game. But many of those eyeing 2016 runs know that – and they’re already working to do it.

Clinton's current popularity, as we've written before, is in part a reflection of the nonpartisan role she's taken as secretary of State, as well as the nostalgia surrounding her husband's now-well-in-the-past White House years. If she were to become an official candidate – coming under attack from rivals, subjected to much harsher scrutiny in the press – it probably wouldn't take long for much of that warmth to fade.  

The real question may be whether Clinton ultimately decides to run at all. As The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor wrote over the weekend: “For her last presidential run, Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy nearly two years before Election Day – but the timing did not feel right to her, because it made the race endless, say former aides who hint she would wait much longer if she made a bid again.”

That means we’ve got two-plus years left of this kind of speculation. If, in the end, she winds up deciding not to take the plunge, Democrats would really have to scramble to find a new candidate to rally behind.

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