ImageI am not the first to note that high-level Democrats are starting to panic about Hillary Clinton. Her “freight train”, highballing for the Democratic presidential nomination, seems unstoppable. But some insiders are warning that the senator might not be able to win the general election.

You don’t dare say this out loud, if you hope to have a post in a new Clinton administration (just in case you’re mistaken about her winning). But there are ways to say it, and some are doing so. Donna Brazile’s recent article (“It’s All up to Al” [1]) touted Al Gore as the man who can save the Democratic Party and the country. Miss Brazile – a well-connected Democratic insider – brushed aside Mrs. Clinton’s claims of White House “experience”. Why would she oppose Mrs. Clinton’s “inevitable” coronation, except for a visceral (and educated) worry that the Clinton Express will crash in the general election and take the Party down with it?

Recent polls show Mrs. Clinton with higher “negatives” than any candidate – either Democratic or Republican. Nearly 50% of voters polled say they would not vote for Mrs. Clinton “under any conceivable circumstances”. This spells trouble for her candidacy, unless those voters can be persuaded to stay home on Election Day. It is also not a good sign that comics are starting to crack wise about her. Wags cite tongue-in-cheek “polls” – e.g., that a high fraction of men say they would rather kill themselves than be married to Mrs. Clinton. Others mention the “Mexico contingent” that vows to move to Mexico if she is elected, rather than listen to her grating voice on national television for the next four years. These are not scientific polls, of course, but they indicate a visceral dislike that does her candidacy no good.

In a recent debate between Democratic candidates, Mrs. Clinton famously tried to triangulate her answer to a question on whether states should issue drivers licenses to illegal aliens. Other candidates jumped on her “evasive” answers, and a weeks-long media uproar followed. Even liberal media organs and commentators have begun to question whether she can be “honest” enough to be a serious candidate for the office.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton sails serenely onward – shaking hands, giving patented speeches tailored to what particular audiences want to hear, and exuding confidence in her ultimate success. Why is she still smiling? Does she know something we don’t? Possibly she does.

What follows here is speculation – I was going to say “pure” speculation, but some evidence and history support it. I suggest that Mrs. Clinton is smiling because she knows two significant things.

(1) The Machine.

Mrs. Clinton knows that the Clinton Campaign Machine – dating far back to the Arkansas governorship era – is still fully operational. All of the various machine-arms – e.g., the “Bimbo Eruption” squad that trashed Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, Linda Trip, and others – are still operational. Critics and enemies – not just Bill Clinton’s past inamorata – have been threatened, silenced and (some insiders charge) actually erased for good. (See “Dead Men Don’t Talk” [2]) In recent weeks, reports have surfaced of attempts to intimidate Mrs. Clinton’s journalistic critics. Threats of non-access to the candidate have been issued to bring certain reporters in line with the campaign’s objectives – i.e., mainly, sympathetic coverage of Mrs. Clinton. Planting softball questions in audiences is only a small part of the machine’s modus operandi. This vicious, big-time machine – which no other candidate, either Democrat or Republican, comes close to matching – will stomp every opponent, critic or threat on the way to the nomination and, ultimately, the general election. This is hardball politics – a la Clinton.

(2) The Third Party Solution.

Based on the history of Bill Clinton’s two successful campaigns for the presidency (1992 and 1996), I believe Mrs. Clinton is smiling because she knows a third party will magically come out of the woodwork in the April-June timeframe of 2008. I speculate (so far, only on the basis of a feeling) that a plan is already in the works to make this happen. The new candidate is likely to be an individual with ample funding and a message that resonates with a specific faction of either GOP or “centrist” voters, which he will target in the general election. Only a small sliver of the vote – perhaps as little as 10% – can make the difference, as the Clinton-history clearly shows. The candidate might advocate fiscal responsibility, or control of illegal immigration, or continuing the Iraq War, or other conservative/centrist causes.

In the 1992 election, billionaire Ross Perot ran as a Reform Party candidate with a message of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, opposition to job outsourcing, opposition to gun control, expansion of the war on drugs, and advocacy of trade-protectionism. He attracted mostly centrist and disaffected GOP voters, winning 19% of the popular vote (19.7 million votes). This made him the most successful third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Mr. Perot’s success greatly reduced Mr. Bush’s vote-totals (37.5%), allowing Mr. Clinton to slip in the back door with just 43% of the popular vote. In 1996 Mr. Perot entered the race late, but still managed to pull 8% of the popular vote. He degraded the GOP’s vote-totals significantly, allowing Mr. Clinton to win a solid electoral victory with 49% of the popular vote.

A Clinton-Perot linkage has never been established, but the coincidence of Mr. Perot throwing the election to Mr. Clinton both times is remarkable. The third-party phenomenon’s dazzling success cannot be lost on the Clintons. I believe the temptation to use it again during Mrs. Clinton’s run will be almost impossible to resist. If a centrist or conservative third-party candidate suddenly materializes in mid-2008, we shall know that the strategy is operational. With a Clinton running again, another third-party appearance would be an amazin’ coincidence.

Indeed, the absence of the third-party ploy in 2000 and 2004 is suggestive – perhaps indicating that the Clintons preferred a Democratic loss in those years. Al Gore lost by a whisker – his chances damaged by the public’s disgust with Bill Clinton’s conduct. No third party helped him squeak by. Ditto for Mr. Kerry in 2004. Eight years of Republican rule – resulting in voter-weariness with Mr. Bush and the GOP – have greased the ways for Mrs. Clinton. We shall presently see whether 1992 and 1996 were electoral “accidents” or part of a deliberate strategy.

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[1] “It’s All up to Al” (http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2007/oct/24/its-all-up-to-gore/)

[2] “Dead Men Don’t Talk” (http://members.tripod.com/~rcjustice/pres.html)