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Plotting Hillary's future
Hillary for president? For vice president? Here's how to read the sudden profusion of tea leaves
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
I

t is a political squall in an autumn of discontent, sparked by a provocative question from David Gregory on Meet the Press. He asked Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, if he envisioned a primary challenge from Hillary Clinton to Obama's renomination in 2012.

Plouffe ducked— the president and the secretary of state are "a great team for America," he said — in a fruitless attempt to dismiss the notion without presuming to speak for Clinton 2.0.  Instead the exchange inspired breathless headlines that Plouffe wouldn't rule out a Clinton challenge to Obama, followed by Gallup testing an Obama-Clinton matchup in a poll.

Then The Washington Post's uber-insider Bob Woodward weighed in on Hillary's potential ascent to vice president by way of a job swap with Joe Biden. Woodward revealed that Clinton’s former (and he hopes future) pollster Mark Penn has long contemplated the possibility. Now Penn has even tested the Obama-Clinton pairing in a survey — and made sure everyone knows about it. Other advisors scoff at the scenario, but one did tell Politico that second place on the ticket would "position her well" for first place in 2016.

Hillary will be a youthful and vigorous 69 in 2016.

Thus has Gregory's tease morphed into melodrama. Woodward's report from the Clinton inner sanctum (or at least its ante chamber) may sell books, but it doesn't foretell the future. The secretary of state still has her eyes on the big prize, but she's not running for anything until 2016. Aside from loyalty, which shouldn't be cynically discounted, Hillary won't venture a coup against the president for three reasons.
 
First, she already lost to Obama once; why do it again? The Gallup numbers show  Obama, who's probably at or near his low point, nonetheless defeating her 52 percent to 37 percent among primary voters. Contrast that with the last major figure to take on an incumbent Democratic president: In the 1980 primary race, Ted Kennedy had a double-digit lead — as high as 2-to-1 — over Jimmy Carter until American diplomats were taken hostage in Iran and Carter used the crisis to turn the primaries into a patriotic referendum.

The Iran hostage crisis was unforeseen; this time, Hillary would have to contemplate the likelihood that by 2012 the economic crisis will be mended, if not ended, which will strengthen Obama's position nationally, and certainly within his own party. She knows that when Reagan was re-elected in 1984, unemployment was about where it had been when he was inaugurated; it was "morning in America" because joblessness, which had exploded in his first two years, was finally coming down.

Second, there are the inescapable realities of cost and the political calendar. To raise the money and put an effective structure in place, Clinton would have to resign early next year and go into all-out campaign mode. Not only would such an abrupt move represent a dubious bet on economic trends, but she would also be abandoning her seemingly central national security role in midstream. Her leadership at State has lifted her above the fray and enhanced her appeal as a national candidate; why would she sacrifice it by moving too soon, and appearing to put politics ahead of country? 

In addition, an abrupt departure would reopen old vulnerabilities and reanimate past perceptions: that she's over-ambitious, willing to do or say anything, a sore loser — all of which she put to rest with her graceful speech at the 2008 convention and her subsequent decision to join the Obama Cabinet. Unlike Kennedy in 1980, she wouldn't have a principled difference such as health care to run on, and the same press that would happily invite her into the contest would soon characterize her cause as sheer opportunism.

Third, even if she somehow won the nomination, it wouldn't be worth having. If Hillary Clinton, or anyone else for that matter, overthrew Barack Obama inside the Democratic Party, many African-Americans would "vote with their feet," refusing to walk to the polls. If the Republicans had the improbably good sense to put forward a mainstream conservative, they could even capture an unprecedented share of the minority vote. 

The last thing Hillary Clinton needs if she wants to be president is a national-scale repetition of the racially fraught South Carolina primary of 2008. And that is exactly what she would get, no matter how much she disclaimed it, if she opposed the first African-American president.

What then, about the second spot? A switch there could hurt Obama more than help him. It would be a confession of weakness. It's unclear, outside the artificial laboratory of a poll, whether Clinton would bring more blue-collar, downscale, non-college voters to the ticket than Biden — who had that assignment in 2008 and carried it off brilliantly. When the gains are dubious at best and any such change would be regarded as crass, why throw Biden under the bus?

Nor is there any reason to assume that the vice president would go quietly into the pinstripe precincts of Foggy Bottom. He already exerts vast influence in foreign policy; he doesn't need to be called secretary of state. Given the modern scope and authority of the vice presidency, why would he defy one of the truisms of Washington — the shorter the title, the more important the job?

Finally, were Obama in danger of losing, why would Hillary agree to go down for the ride? In that event, she might not be rewarded for her loyal service, or be seen as the once and future star. Instead, she might simply be written off as another part of the past.

Hillary Clinton can become president and perhaps she will — in 2016.  She'll be 69, but young in appearance and full of vigor, with a depth of experience and credibility on issues ranging from war and peace to the economy and education. She will leave the State Department after Obama's first term to resume the journey toward a first term of her own. Or she could even resign in the late spring or summer of 2012 to campaign for Democrats across the country and gather chits for her own final run in 2016.

Then ironically, the now imaginary contest between Clinton and Biden could become a real choice for Democrats.  He'll be a young 73. “President Clinton” has a ring to it. But so does “President Biden” — just drop the “vice.”

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