Most readers undoubtedly thought they were safe from having to think about an American election for at least a few years, especially after all the hype surrounding the most recent presidential contest. But most readers, in this instance, are wrong. For real political addicts, the recent re-election of Barack Obama is just an excuse to sound the starting gun to begin thinking about the next presidential election, in 2016. And surprise, surprise, that is exactly what politicians and political writers across the US are already handicapping. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
The key, crucial, fundamental question, for Democrats and Republicans alike, now and going forward, is the nature of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s future political ambitions. This becomes particularly important since US presidents since Franklin Roosevelt’s four victories have been prohibited from serving more than two terms. That makes Barack Obama a kind of automatic lame duck – and one whose political capital will increasingly become a wasting asset as the year 2016 gets closer and closer.
Moreover, according to all reports, although there is nothing official or public about it yet, Hillary Clinton has told Barack Obama she does not wish to “re-up” in the second Obama administration for a second stint as his most senior diplomat. Being secretary of state in the current age is an exceptionally exhausting job, what with all the travel the job entails, even with the dedicated jet and gaggle of aides, and so she will be making a graceful exit, shortly after January.
Hillary Clinton already has served eight solid and hard-working years in the Senate, carried out a remarkable run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and then turned in a commendable record in Obama’s cabinet (unless you are one of those Republicans who want her to take the rap for the Benghazi deaths). Unless she issues a more ladylike but Shermanesque statement about her non-negotiable status as a non-candidate (General Sherman famously said, “If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve”), Hillary Clinton is the automatic, inevitable and near-universally acknowledged Democratic frontrunner for 2016. Period. Vice president Joe Biden is nowhere close. In fact, unless Clinton makes her non-availability written in stone and sworn on a stack of holy books, and signs the statement in her own blood, just by being who she is, she takes up all the oxygen in the room for the race-that-is-yet-to-be.
Meanwhile, over in the Republican Party, potential candidates effectively are already measuring themselves against a presumed Hillary Clinton candidacy, and the party as a whole is already contemplating how it can be a political entity that will tempt the female vote (in contrast to their dismal record on that score in the last two electoral cycles) to support it. Especially when its candidate would have to run against the über-female candidate in the person of one Hillary Rodham Clinton: the former secretary of state, former senator, former first lady, and current champion of women’s rights universally.
And so who are these potential GOP candidates who would take their chances against Clinton? Top of the heap may be New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a junkyard dog of a prosecutor, now governor, who has earned solid credentials as a successful Republican politician in a generally blue state. His credibility for 2016 would be greatly strengthened if he fends off a probable vigorous challenge from the very popular current Newark mayor, Cory Booker. However, the Republican Party leadership may never get around to forgive him for his embrace of Barack Obama in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy just before the 2012 election, even if ordinary citizens remember that gesture more fondly as a demonstration of the real purposes of being in government – solving problems – rather than just the goal of winning of elections.
Then there is incumbent Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a man who has some real minority, hyphenated-American street cred as a South Asian Indian-American who has already risen far from modest means from an immigrant family, and who has demonstrated a generally good track record as a governor. But Louisiana is not a large state in population terms; some very parochial oil and gas interests dominate Louisiana; and the state’s politics are usually seen as particularly baroque and murky.
Then there is the new Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, the son of retiring libertarian, Tea Party-supporting Texas congressman and frequent challenger for the Republican presidential nomination Ron Paul. Rand Paul has acquired a charismatic sheen and he is already the darling of the hard right. However, his actual track record in policy accomplishment terms is, so far, “light”, at best.
Two of Florida’s political heavy hitters also figure on nearly everyone’s list as well. These are former governor Jeb Bush and current senator Marco Rubio. Bush is generally acknowledged as the brighter son of George HW Bush, and by virtue of his Hispanic wife, he may be able to make a better appeal to the country’s fastest growing ethnic minority on behalf of Republicans than has been the case for any of its other candidates so far. But, the question will inevitably go, is the country ever going to be ready to accept another president named Bush?
Then there is Florida senator Marco Rubio. Rubio has a genuinely compelling immigrant family saga. He did, however, have some sharp explaining to do when he got some of the details wrong the first couple of times he tried to explain it in public, not the least of which was that his forebears didn’t actually have to escape Castro’s tyranny. Rather, they came to the US before Castro actually came to power – they were economic migrants, not refugees from communism. Rubio is clearly charismatic as a campaigner and speaker; and he wears the persona of a tough conservative politician with a sense of comfort and relative ease, rather than one of rancorous vengeance upon those benefit-grabbing “moochers”.
However, right out of the box, Rubio managed to stumble in an effort to appeal to Christian evangelical fundamentalist voters, bobbing and weaving over a softball question about his views on the age of the Earth. He warbled around the question of whether the whole creation of the universe happened in seven days, seven ages or 4.5 billion years. Rubio, at least in his first try, tried to be all things to all people. To be a skilled national campaigner for 2016, Rubio will need to find a much more coherent way to embrace the religious literalists without turning himself into a national laughing stock of a man clueless about science in the process.
And what about Hillary, once she leaves office in January 2013? Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, Jody Kantor said of Clinton: “Of all the issues Mrs. Clinton has worked on over the years, the one nearest her heart is improving the status of women and children around the world… [F]ormer aides say that Mrs. Clinton drew a lesson from her 2008 run: she believes that the country approves of her, and of female candidates in general, when they appear to be serving others rather than seeking power out of personal ambition. By that logic, Mrs. Clinton’s interest in helping poor women around the world would not hurt her politically in 2016 and might add to her current politician-above-politics luster…”
She will need to find a way to park herself somewhere so that she stays visible nationally and internationally, isn’t burdened with a heavy-lifting day job that makes her take hard decisions that can only make powerful enemies, but still generate income for the lifestyle the Clintons have come to enjoy. The ideal spot might well be, at least for a while, a special chair at her husband’s foundation, or perhaps a special professorship at a prestigious university – especially one that doesn’t actually require teaching first year students the rudiments of American politics. In the years ahead, assuming she wants to make this one last run for the big prize, she will want to make speeches across the country on behalf of many other politicians and for their fundraising efforts, even as she combines those efforts with speeches – at a hefty stipend, of course. Such efforts will be reaching out to a national constituency to fire up the faithful to work themselves to the bone just one more time for Hillary, as well as collect a significant amount of IOUs from many a democrat politician looking for help in fundraising. (In that regard, she could do much worse than trace then senator Obama's steps in the 2006 mid-term elections, when the then freshman helped raise funds for hundreds of his colleagues.)
And of course she has two not so secret weapons on her side – the first is the “Big Dawg”, Bubba, Bill Clinton in his guise as helpmate and advisor – and the country’s best rhetorical guided missile now extant. And then there is the sitting president as well. She has earned Obama’s support and his patented campaigning technology and its wizards have been an unparalleled success. Moreover, Obama has, every bit as much as she has, a wide cadre of faithful campaign activists and organisers who can be encouraged to saddle up for Hillary as well to continue the good fight.
But the big question is whether she wants the job, and the agony and angst that come with trying to get it. At a minimum, it will require a two-year commitment of time, energy and enthusiasm – real or feigned. One thing that must militate against another campaign run is the inevitable difficulty of scoring a third presidential term in a row for one party. The combination of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush did it from 1980 to 1992; but before that it was only the combinations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman during World War II and the early Cold War years – and then the political trifecta of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, right at the beginning of the 20th century. And of course, one should not forget that Hillary will be of not inconsiderable age, 69, should she win in 2016 – a feet only achieved so far by Ronald Reagan.
Still, if the second Obama administration can continue to build an economic recovery and get some serious legacy work in under its belt in the foreign policy arena, a Hillary Clinton candidacy could make a real case for a third four-year turn for the Democrats as a kind of “keep the adults in charge” campaign strategy. These are big ifs, mind you.
But, if Hillary Clinton gets in some serious beach walking time, a book or two finished (along with a seven-figure advance in dollars paid up front to ease the pain) and a chance to clear out the mental cobwebs and allow for some serenity and self-reflection – her retirement from active politics on into a future that could last for decades may become exceptionally boring in just about two years’ time, tops. And then it is back onto the campaign trail for a chance to make “her story” as America’s first female chief executive. That may well be the final temptation, and the one that cannot be ignored, regardless of who finally survives the circular firing squad that is the Republican Party’s style in its primary campaigns. DM