Even from Los Angeles, it's easy to get wind of the conventional wisdom in Washington about the future of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: No doubt about it... she's going to be our next president. Even many Republicans believe this. The CW rests on several assumptions that may well be true but are fairly useless so far as augury is concerned. Here are five truths to consider about Hillary Clinton.
1. She hasn't made up her mind yet — indeed, far from it. People who have spoken to Clinton about her future and, importantly, who have spoken with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are not ready to bet on odds any greater than 50:50 that she decides to run. In fact, Clinton discourages speculation within her inner circle not by swearing them to omerta but by simply laughing off the possibility that she needs to make a decision anytime soon. Clinton will be a private citizen soon after the inauguration. She will spend time traveling (without portfolio and for leisure), she'll read, see movies, and get plenty of sleep. It will be her first break in years. From this period of mindfulness a wellspring of different possibilities might emerge. Retirement is one of them. She's earned it.
2. The Democratic Party is waiting for her to decide, but they'll want at least some sign from her before the spring ends in 2015. Donors everywhere are frozen in place. Neither New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, nor anyone else has the wherewithal to build a primary warchest until Clinton decides what to do. Neither of these candidates have the capacity to build grassroots movements like President Obama either, since there is such unanimity within the party about Clinton's chances and the idea that it's her turn. There is a lot of love for Vice President Biden, but .. let me rephrase. There is a lot of affection for him. It is hard to see (at this point) him turning it into a viable political movement.
3. Clinton might be the best-qualified presidential candidate in history. Qualifications are determined by what the moment requires and not only by resume, but Clinton has both. Her best presidential quality: She has been brought low, and recovered spectacularly. She has been humbled, first by her husband's affair and later by the 2008 primary campaign, and has pulled herself up each time, becoming a better politician and person. She does not need the rigors of a campaign to test her. She's proven she has the fortitude to BE president. She is intimately familiar with Washington and its problems, her foreign policy resume at this point is beyond reproach, she's spent enough time AWAY from the Senate to be a legitimate critic of Congress and the way things worked during President Obama's administration, and boy have her basic political skills improved. She is quick on the draw now, eager to take political risks, not afraid to be vulnerable, and for this, her approval ratings are incredibly high. Sadly for the Vice President, it is she, not Joe Biden, who most Democrats see as Obama's heir-apparent.
4. Clinton is not unbeatable. This is heresy to some Democrats, but it's true. For one thing, general elections concentrate partisan minds. Her approval numbers WILL decline, and when they do, that decline will provide momentum for a narrative that will dog her throughout any presidential campaign: Is the Old Hillary (the Clinton-era Hillary) giving the New Hillary (the Obama-era Hillary) a reputation problem among working class white voters? This is a false narrative, because there is only one person running, and she is the sum of all of her experiences. Her coalition is not Obama's, although there is plenty of overlap. Clinton may not be able to achieve the turnout among African Americans or younger voters that provided President Obama with his margins of victory in several key states like Ohio and Florida. If I had to guess, however, whether women will vote for the first female president in record numbers... well, I don't really have to guess. It's self-evident. Damn right they would. That said, even the best of politicians can make gutter-ball mistakes, and if the Obama administration mucks things up and doesn't pull the economy out of its doldrums, then voters will rightly wonder whether electing another Democrat, even someone as beloved as Clinton, makes sense.
5. Clinton would run a very different campaign than Obama's. It would start later, rather than earlier, and it would be predicated on Clinton's strengths, and not Obama's. She has learned to be a better manager of people, and her campaign team would be top-notch. They are better skilled in the dark arts than Obama's team, and they won't hesitate to use them if necessary. They will pay more attention to the regular elite political press corps than Obama's inner circle ever did. She will probably outraise him among gay donors, if you can believe it. Women will be at the center of any Clinton campaign, and not necessarily a multiracial coalition. Bill Clinton will be less of a help to his wife than he was to Obama. And the issue set will be quite different. She won't be able to run on health care. She'll probably have to run on some sort of continuity platform. And that might mean the tenor of the campaign will be different. If the Democratic National Committee manages to keep the Obama for American campaign infrastructure intact, Clinton's team would no doubt borrow elements from it, but there are plenty of Clinton advisers who would do things differently as well.
If I had to bet, I'd bet that she decides to run, if only because she will feel that destiny and circumstance have put her in the right place at the right time. She may feel that she owes it to young women and those who supported her to finish the marathon of American politics. But she might well decide that her legacy is secure, her popularity is intact, her financial prospects are bright, and her future lies with advocacy from the outside and grand-mothering.
Anyone who says they KNOW what she'll do is lying, either to you, or to themselves.