Hillary 2016?

Hillary 2016?

By David Paul Kuhn - October 27, 2009

Hillary Clinton did not need another man stealing her thunder. Last week, John Kerry earned headlines for convincing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a run-off election. The Senate's top man on foreign affairs looked more like the secretary of state. And naturally, political observers wondered where was the secretary of state?

Kerry took pains to convey that he did not upstage Clinton on the world stage. Rather, he said, she facilitated the shuttle diplomacy. But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did not help matters. "Secretary Kerry," Gibbs gaffed to reporters.

Clinton's quiet role has not gone unnoticed. Many Clinton watchers raised their eyebrows when GQ's 50 Most Powerful political list ranked her only No. 18. Above Clinton, Dick Cheney (though he is unemployed) and even two top healthcare executives.

It's tempting for some Beltway players to presume Clinton's greatest prospects are behind her. Tempting, but hardly assured.

Clinton's coalition is the sleeping giant of American politics. No other national politician, save Obama, has proven able to raise as much money. Much of her base was, like Obama, also loyal for deeper reasons than politics. This is doubly true for the Democratic women who were, and still are, personally invested in Clinton's almost-historic presidency. It's no coincidence that Clinton is on the cover of Parade magazine this week.

Clinton remains the second most prominent Democrat in the country. Her approval rating is higher than her boss, according to Gallup. But to be fair, Obama is the one getting dirtied in domestic politics.

If she still wants it, her chance is likely 2016. Obama has good odds in 2012, as incumbents do. But Obama's presidency could sink into unusually bad times. If so, don't bet on a rerun of Jimmy Carter versus Edward Kennedy.

Kennedy never served under Carter. If she left early, with no excuse but her own ambitions, charges of betrayal would dog Clinton. Clinton's investment in Democratic détente would be squandered. "Being on the presidents' team gives you the chance to end the speculation that you are not on the presidents team," as one Clinton White House veteran said.

Clinton has a term obstacle in this scenario as well. Secretaries of state generally serve four years. To leave early would inflame Obama's base all over again.

There is another provocative and opposing scenario. Might Obama place Clinton on the 2012 ticket? It's possible but unlikely.

The relationship between Joe Biden and Obama is strong. Biden certainly likes the job. And ditching veeps is unusual. Only two vice presidents have resigned. Not since FDR has an incumbent switched his veep during a campaign (excluding the debatable circumstances under which Nelson Rockefeller left Gerald Ford's ticket in 1976). George H.W. Bush, after all, stuck with Dan Quayle.

Biden could conceivably seek the nomination himself. But even 71-year-old John McCain constantly faced down the age issue. By 2016, Biden will be 74.

Clinton would have her own age issues. Her 62nd birthday was Monday. Clinton will be 69 by 2016. That's the age of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the oldest president-elect ever.

The nature of secretary of state is also an obstacle. Five of the six presidents between 1801 and 1841 held the job. But it's been about 150 years since a secretary of state became president.

Still, Clinton came to see secretary of state as her next best move. If the prize would not be hers, state was a significant consolation. At least she is fourth in line to the presidency.

And yet, as secretary of state, her past prominence is again contrasted against a diminished stature. Modern secretaries of states are traditionally not the most influential White House advisors. James Baker was the last exception.

But Baker never had Clinton's stature. Her past stature is precisely why Clinton attempts to lower her profile in new posts, at least at first. "I want to be a workhorse here, not a showhorse," she reportedly told her Democratic colleagues after winning her 2000 Senate bid. The New Republic later complained, "Clinton has submerged herself in policy minutiae that would make a C-SPAN junkie snore."

Nearly a decade later, Washington is again wondering about Clinton's relative silence in the big show. The Kerry incident did not help. Yet overall, the low profile is a political blessing. Obama's onetime rival now appears the good soldier.

Should Biden not run again, Clinton could become Obama's heir apparent. Obvious factors: the strength of other Democratic contenders by 2016 and the state of the GOP.

For now, Clinton's prospects depend on her current post. Her 2008 campaign struggled with disarray. Clinton could use a good run as an executive.

As one former Clinton campaign operative put it, "Secretary of State is a huge opportunity to repair all the damage from 2008 and create a piece of history for herself."

But does Clinton still want more? "I have absolutely no interest in running for president again. None. None. I mean, I know that's hard for some people to believe," she recently told ABC News' Cynthia McFadden. "I gave it all I had, I'm giving this job all I have. I try to live in the present, so it just seems," Clinton continued, "that's not in my future."

Of course, contenders always say they have no interest until they want their interest known. Does anyone who pushes so hard, gets that close, lose interest? Generally, not unless they must.

Al Gore came as close as anyone. "If I had to do it all again, I'd just let it rip," he reportedly told about 60 of his top fundraisers in 2002. But he could not do it again. He did not want to be another Adlai Stevenson. John Kerry also wanted one more chance. But he too realized his chance had passed.

Clinton is different. She never ran a general election campaign. Therefore she does not have to live down mistakes. In fact, Clinton's profile appears stronger for her bid. She proved her endurance and capacity to win votes. Importantly, she still is seen as presidential.

A Fox News poll in September found that 27 percent of Americans believe if "Clinton had won the election" she would "be doing a better" job as president. Another 25 percent said she would be doing as well as Obama.

More than half of the country, and even half of Democrats, views Clinton as the president's equal or better. And Clinton likely agrees.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

Progressives Don't Need Washington All That Much
Froma Harrop · November 6, 2014
Early Forecast: More Gridlock
Ruth Marcus · November 9, 2014
Hillary and Dynasties
Richard Cohen · November 11, 2014

David Paul Kuhn

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter