You knew it would happen. One year into the Obama presidency, with health care legislation stymied and the economy still shedding jobs, albeit at a slower pace, and with Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings hovering near the break-even mark, some political pundit was going to raise the inevitable question: should Hillary challenge Obama in 2012? And so it has, with pundits here and here openly speculating about whether Hillary will take the plunge in 2012.
If Hillary does decide to throw her pantsuits back into the ring, the trigger, according to this columnist will be clear evidence that Iran has acquired nuclear weapons and/or another terrorist attack on U.S. soil following the failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing and the Fort Hood massacre. Clinton will cite these events, and Obama’s unwillingness to take a harder line against Iran, as her justification for resigning as Secretary of State, thus freeing her to challenge Obama in the 2012 nomination race. Quoting the familiar “Washington insiders” (and who are they? Bill Clinton?), the columnist argues that Hillary feels marginalized as Secretary of State and – quoting statistics from my blog – points out that only about half of the secretaries of state serving in the post-World War II era have lasted a full term. He writes:
“The same, seemingly in-the-know sources say Mrs. Clinton will also resign — and run for president — if there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, such as the Fort Hood massacre by a Muslim fundamentalist Army major, or the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. passenger jet by a Nigerian Islamist, and Mr. Obama does not respond by scrapping his soft approach to terrorism, which includes treating alien enemy combatants as common criminals entitled to civilian court trials, lawyers, and plea bargains.”
Does some significant portion of the public that supported Obama in 2008 now feel buyer’s remorse? Undoubtedly. Does Clinton feel marginalized as Secretary of State? Almost certainly yes. Did she campaign in part on the argument that she was better prepared than Obama to prosecute the war on terror and to conduct foreign policy more generally (remember that early morning phone call?) Yes she did. And does it appear that she has taken a harder line on several key foreign policy issues than Obama? Well, yes, if leaks regarding her views on Iran and the war in Afghanistan can be believed.
Will all this be enough to trigger a primary challenge? I doubt it. To begin, the odds of wresting the party nomination from a sitting president are not good. The last two serious challenges occurred in 1992, when Pat Buchanan challenged President George Bush the Elder for the Republican nomination, and in 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran against President Jimmy Carter. Both challenges were triggered by perceptions that the incumbent presidents were vulnerable – perceptions confirmed when both Carter and Bush went on to lose in the general election. But neither Buchanan nor Kennedy came close to unseating the president, although Kennedy took his fight to the Convention. And both were later accused, unfairly in my view, for weakening the incumbent in his general election fight. It takes a pretty hefty ego to think one can buck those odds, or risk the huge backlash if the effort fails and Obama then goes on to lose the general election in 2012.
There is a second reason why I don’t think Clinton will challenge Obama – it strikes me as out of character for her. I don’t sense that she possesses the all-consuming “fire in the belly” that is necessary to take up a challenge that will be sure to trigger all the animosity toward her that we saw in the 2008 race: the feeling that she has a sense of entitlement, the resentment toward Bill, and the latent gender issues that invariably will bubble up during the campaign.
For what it is worth (and I don’t think it is worth anything) she has denied any interest in running for President again, ever. If Hillary still harbors presidential ambitions, however, it makes more sense, I think, to wait until 2016. If she is planning on challenging Obama in 2012, however, a triggering event might be a Republican tsunami in the 2010 midterms. If the Democrats lose control of the Senate, and a significant number – say, 40 or more – seats in the House, and if the economy continues to shed jobs, and there is no health care legislation AND Obama’s approval ratings hover in the lower 40% range, Clinton might yet summon the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits once again, arguing that she is compelled to do so to rescue the Democrat Party. Her slogan? “This time vote for real change!”
P.S. In my initial post on Hillary as Secretary of State, I set the over-under on her tenure at four years, and asked you to predict when she would resign. Several of you cited Obama’s first State of the Union as the date of departure – sorry! No t-shirt for you!