To say that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a polarizing figure -- as people do all the time -- is to suggest that politics was like a big campfire singalong until this pantsuited fomenter showed up and turned us all against one another. Not true. No one person is to blame, or thousand people, or president, or talking head. The country has been divided for a long time and for a variety of reasons: the flood of money into the political system; the perverse proliferation and specialization of negative ads; partisan news channels; and the proverbial “coarsening of our culture.” Clinton is a product of that environment. She has adapted to it and at times thrived in it, but she hardly caused it.I can quibble with Leibovich's list of causes, but he's right that we simply have a polarized political culture that's no individual politician's fault, a culture in which right-wingers denounced "Bush derangement syndrome" until our side began denouncing "Obama derangement syndrome" (and, as Leibovich notes, there was an unnamed but epidemic Clinton derangement syndrome when Bill Clinton was president). Hillary Clinton is seen as especially polarizing simply because she's been a prominent part of this polarized politics for longer than most pols, and has managed to thrive within it.
I think the political press understands this on some level -- many political journalists and pundits blame the same forces Leibovich blames for a widespread polarization -- but when the journos get the opportunity to blame polarization on an individual, they grab it.
And they think all the polarization might go away if a heroic anti-polarization politician on a white horse can just banish it, like St. Patrick driving out the snakes. Curiously, however, when they claim to have spotted a potential polarization-eliminator, the pol is almost inevitably a Republican. Rand Paul isn't a militarist and supports criminal justice reform! Paul Ryan's brow furrows thoughtfully when he talks about poverty! Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush worry about poverty, too! The political press is desperate to find a Great Republican Hope to drive away all the polarization -- if it's not one of these guys, it's a Republican governor such as John Kasich or (pre-religious freedom law) Mike Pence.
It was a bit different a few years ago -- you could be the potential banisher of polarization and be a Democrat, but you had to be Very Serious, which means you had to travel the land demanding that ordinary Americans give up a good portion of their government benefits.
In theory, you'd think Hillary Clinton could be one of the politicians touted by Beltway journalists as a polarization-killer. Polls show she's popular with non-white voters and white liberals, yet she's appealed to older white ethnics, at least during her beer-and-a-shot campaign in 2008. She deviates from party orthodoxy on some issues -- if she did that as a Republican, the press would praise her lavishly for it.
But she's not demanding the immediate passage of Simpson-Bowles, and Republicans despise and vilify
her because Republicans despise and vilify anyone who can beat them in elections. So it's not our fault that we don't all rally around her, as it is when we don't rally around Evan Bayh or John Kasich. It's her fault that she's polarizing.