By Susan Estrich
I saw it on election night, as I scrolled through the exit poll that somehow made its way online (at least at cbsnews.com) even before the polls closed in Ohio. It only took a little calculation for the result to be clear: Had the election been a contest between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, more of McCain's voters would have voted for Hillary than Obama voters for McCain. Based on the exit polls, Hillary not only would have won, but she would have won by more than Obama did.
I believe that. Hillary would have meant no Sarah Palin. In the long run, that might have been good news for McCain and his reputation, but there is no denying that Palin gave him a temporary boost, bigger crowds and greater enthusiasm in the base. Without Palin, he would have been forced to play to the Republican base even more himself. With Hillary, there would have been no experience issue. With Hillary, the Democratic base of low-income white voters would have been solid.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda. What might have been. It doesn't really matter. Obama ran a better caucus strategy. He's president because of it. Politics is a tough game.
There is no point in crying over spilled milk, especially when there is a fresh carton on the table. Obama won. The country and the world have been changed by it. And those of us who yearned to see a woman — and specifically a woman named Hillary Clinton — take the oath on January 20 can at least find solace in the knowledge that we were right about the most important issue: She was electable. She could have won.
But there is a more important and less theoretical point in the revelations of the exit polls: The Democratic bench is stronger than the Republican frontline.
Democrats have on the bench a would-be president. Republicans, even as their governors meet in Florida, are hard-pressed to find anyone who can lead their party out of the wastelands.
They don't have an Obama or a Hillary. McCain really was their best hope, and 2008 was his best shot. They face the future struggling for definition, ideas and leadership.
Of course, Obama faces serious challenges. If he stumbles, Republicans will pounce. Karl Rove may be right that history, strictly speaking, favors the Republicans in two years because the party responsible for nothing has, historically speaking, a better chance of claiming that whatever has gone wrong is not their fault. But the absence of national leaders offering better ideas complicates their case.
Their most attractive future leaders — guys like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota — are not going to be taking on Obama in Washington, but trying to run their own states thousands of miles away. Meanwhile, Obama has in Clinton a powerful and popular ally who can help him expand the Democratic base and maybe even lead the effort to solve the health care problem in America. Who better?
There are some Hillary supporters who will find in the latest numbers a shred of hope for a future Clinton presidency. If Obama should prove himself not up to the task, who knows? Eight years is not so long.
I don't see it that way. Democrats and the country have an enormous interest in Obama's success. All efforts should be focused on that goal. If he succeeds, the Democratic Party, the country and the world will benefit.
What the exit polls make clear is that Hillary can and should be a valued ally in that effort. She is not, as Harvard professor and one-time Obama adviser Samantha Power so foolishly stated, a "monster." Power was not alone in feeling that way; she just made the mistake of voicing it to a foreign journalist. But it is an attitude that should be renounced once and for all.
The Republicans have no one like Hillary. Obama would be crazy not to take advantage of his, and our, good fortune.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.