Will Hillary freeze the Invisible Primary?

She is the 800-pound gorilla in a pantsuit

Hillary Clinton delivers her farewell address to the staff before leaving her position as the secretary of state on Feb. 1.
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

So Hillary Clinton is now a citizen in repose. The brief frenzy of 2016 speculation that accompanied the inauguration has died down, and thank goodness, because we're all supposed to hate presidential politics, and we're supposed to let the current president govern. The Invisible Primary refers to the period before the formal party primaries. During this period, candidates figure out if they want to run, recruit staff, decide how they want to run, recruit donors, and plan their campaign. It takes place behind closed doors, usually, with brief flashes of publicity only to ensure that the political reporting class dutifully begins to assess the candidate's seriousness and informal campaign apparatus.

These days, the Invisible Primary is quite visible. Political operatives acquire a celebrity; their movements are tracked as they feel out candidates. Political action committee disbursements are scrutinized; how much of the money is going to Iowa or New Hampshire? Whose loyalists get the most representation on the rules committee? Who was seen having dinner with the head of the AFL-CIO?

But this year, all that might just stop. The Democratic Party has two tiers of candidates. In order for the second tier of candidates to even conceive of running, then the first tier has to step aside. That first tier, of course, is occupied by Clinton. Her intentions are unknowable, but trust me when I tell you that, to the extent that the Democratic Party still has reliable donors and committed activists, the lion's share are hoping Clinton runs and are ready to endorse her immediately. She is the 800-pound gorilla in a pantsuit. No one moves until she does.

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So if you're Martin O'Malley or Andrew Cuomo, what do you do? There's not much you can do. You can hire some staff; O'Malley just booked the services of Teddy Davis for "strategic communications." Davis knows the political world in and out. He will handle O'Malley's quiet outreach to reporters and others. (Disclosure: I helped hire him as an intern for the ABC News Political Unit a decade ago.) I assume that, at some point, O'Malley will reach out to Clinton to get a feel for whether any more public activity would offend her. Cuomo probably won't. He's too proud for that. But how he'll find donors in New York... I don't know.

One truth that none of the potential 2016 candidates will admit to is that they'd be willing to be Clinton's vice president. (Current veep Joe Biden is the exception. He's up or out.) That's why they have to tread carefully. They cannot risk offending the Clinton universe even if she were to lose the presidency in 2016 because they will need that apparatus, or a lot of it, very quickly for 2020. Never say never, but for the moment, no one is going to run for president the way Barack Obama did.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is TheWeek.com's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.