Tag Archives: hillary clinton 2012

Hillary Clinton: Biden Her Time?

Last August, I wrote a somewhat controversial piece at Salon that laid out a number of reasons why Democrats should favor a primary challenge by Hillary Clinton against President Obama.  Last week, Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell, coming late to the party, revisited the points I made in their Wall St. Journal op-ed piece titled  “The Hillary Moment” .  Rather than a primary challenge, however, they suggested that for the good of the Democratic Party, Obama ought to emulate Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and bow out of the presidential race, ceding the nomination to Clinton. After making many of the same points as I did regarding why Clinton was the stronger candidate, they conclude that, “But this is about more than electoral politics. Not only is Mrs. Clinton better positioned to win in 2012 than Mr. Obama, but she is better positioned to govern if she does. Given her strong public support, she has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington. “

Not surprisingly, public reaction to their piece mirrored the reaction to mine, with Democrats about equally split between supporting the President or backing Hillary. In the end, of course, the point is moot, since Clinton has repeatedly denied any interest in challenging Obama, and there is no evidence that Obama is going to reprise Johnson’s surprise announcement  from March, 1968 that he was not going to seek his party’s nomination.  Of course, no one anticipated Johnson’s decision either, but I would be completely shocked if Obama took himself out of the race.  One big difference between Truman and Johnson, and Obama, of course, is that the former two both won reelection after becoming president upon their predecessors’ deaths.   Obama’s political circumstances are slightly different – by 2012 he will have only served four years in office.

The Schoen/Caddell editorial did have one new consequence:  it refocused media attention on the long-simmering rumor that Obama is contemplating replacing Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary.   Yesterday, in the latest version of this rumor, former governor Pete Du Pont made the case for why Obama should dump Biden. Du Pont acknowledged that given the current political climate Obama faces an uphill reelection fight.  He notes, however, that Obama is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish his place on the ticket. DuPont’s conclusion? “[I]t seems possible that the Democrat Party will pre-emptively decide that the time has come for some fresh thinking about its ticket…”  Rather than step down, however, Obama “might … decide to switch to a vice presidential candidate who will be stronger, better, and change the thinking of a majority of the Democrats–namely, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

This is not the first time we have heard rumors of a Clinton-for-Biden switch, and barring a significant economic upturn, it won’t be the last.  But is it a good idea for Obama? Let’s look at the historical record. Since FDR’s presidency there have been only a few occasions when the incumbent president has contemplated dumping his vice president but only three occasions when it actually occurred.  Two took place during Roosevelt’s presidency.  Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner,  served eight years as VP before actually stepping down to run against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1940.  Garner did so in part to protest Roosevelt’s breaking the two-term pledge, and in reaction to FDR’s failed court-packing plan and unsuccessful effort to purge conservative Democrats from the party during the 1938 midterm elections.  Garner’s bid failed, of course, and his vice presidential replacement, Henry Wallace, lasted one term before he too was booted off the ticket in 1944, an action engineered by party leaders who viewed his foreign policy views as dangerously out of step with the party’s principles, but which appeared to have FDR’s tacit support.  His replacement, of course, was Harry Truman, who became President on FDR’s death in April, 1945.

It would be more than three decades before another President reprised FDR’s strategy but for different political motivations.  In 1976, Gerald Ford, facing a tough election fight under adverse economic conditions, accepted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s offer to leave the ticket, and eventually replaced him with the more conservative Bob Dole.  Ford did so in light of dissatisfaction among the conservative wing of the Republican Party with Rockefeller and facing a likely primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Ford went on to lose a close election to Jimmy Carter.  Looking back, Ford wondered whether he might have won several key states – New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania – and thus the race with Rockefeller on the ticket. Interestingly, there is strong evidence that Reagan was willing to take the VP position, but Ford apparently was not aware of this and never offered it.  In later years Ford expressed regret with his decision to dump Rockefeller.

On at least one other occasion, an incumbent president facing a difficult reelection fight considered jettisoning his vice president – but did not do so.  In 1992, George H. W. Bush was in a tough race against Bill Clinton, and there was active discussion regarding whether to replace Vice President Dan Quayle on the ticket.  In an oral history, James Baker – who ran Bush’s presidential campaigns – alluded to Ford’s decision as one reason why Bush decided to keep Quayle on the ticket.  Baker was asked whether Bush regretted choosing Quayle as Vice President in the first place. He replied:  “Maybe later. Maybe later, because the coverage was so uniformly negative for the four years that I think he would’ve been pleased perhaps even to see Dan volunteer to step down in ’92, but that wasn’t to be. And he certainly couldn’t take the ax to him because the press would say, Hey, you dummy, the problem is not the Vice President. It’s you. That’s why you’re running low in the polls. So he couldn’t do that. In fact I think [Gerald] Ford made a mistake when he let [Nelson] Rockefeller go. And if it had been Ford and Rockefeller, I think they would’ve won that election in ’76, instead of Ford and Dole.”  So Bush stuck with Quayle – and lost anyway, in large part because Ross Perot’s third party candidacy siphoned votes from Bush.

Despite the negative outcome, Baker’s reasoning still seems to me to be applicable to Obama’s predicament today.  He can’t fire Biden without signaling that he knows his reelection is in doubt.  And it would be even more difficult to replace Biden with Clinton for the simple reason that half of the likely Democratic voters are going to want the ticket reversed, with Clinton on the top. Now, if Biden “volunteers” to step down, as Rockefeller did, that may ease Obama’s problem superficially, although even then there will be the inevitable whispering campaign that Biden was asked to resign. And I doubt Joe, who undoubtedly has his own eye on the presidency, wants to endure the public humiliation and long-term political repercussions from being forced from the ticket after one term.

There’s a final reason why I think the Clinton-for-VP proposal is a bad idea: it does nothing for her.  She’s played the loyal soldier admirably for three years now, largely staying above the political fray and garnering strong approval ratings in the process.  Why jeopardize her political rehabilitation for second billing on the Democratic ticket?  If she’s going to get down into the political mud to save the party and risk tarnishing her reputation, it makes far more sense to do so for the ultimate prize: the presidency, rather than taking a backseat to Obama for four more years.

But then, you’ve heard that argument before. Ultimately, Obama has to decide if the electoral gains from having Clinton rather than Biden on the ticket outweigh the certain cost of publicly acknowledging that without change he’s in significant danger of losing the race.  Even if he concludes that the trade is worth making, he still must convince Clinton that it’s in her interest as well.  Looking at both calculations, my guess is that Obama will stay with Biden.

Rival of One: Obama’s Greatest Political Move To Date

Since I am as guilty as anyone for triggering the Hillary for President mini-boomlet with this Salon post, I should point out that the Salon version left out the opening line that was included in my original version at the Presidential Power site:  “She won’t run, of course.”  Clinton confirmed my assertion in a recent informal interview on CNN in which she put the chances of her running for the presidency at “less than zero”.  Clinton was reacting in part to Vice President Richard Cheney’s widely reported comment that she was a “formidable individual” who was “probably the most competent person they’ve got in their — in their cabinet.”

Clinton’s latest statement is not the first time she’s denied any interest in running against Obama. Every time the story begins to fade, however, another news item surfaces to reignite discussion of a Clinton candidacy.  The latest triggering event, as highlighted in  this Politico story, is a recent Bloomberg news poll that received heavy media play for its finding that 34% of respondents thought the country would be better off if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. (The poll was in the field Sept. 9-12, and has a margin of error of +/- 3%).  That is an increase of 9% from when this question was asked by Bloomberg in 2010. Interestingly, even though majorities of both groups view her unfavorably, Republicans and Tea Party supporters were more likely to say the country would be better off under Clinton than were Democrats; most Democrats believe things would be no different under a Clinton presidency than it has been under Obama.

That same poll found that she is easily the most popular figure among a list of prominent political figures that includes all the leading Republican candidates for president as well as President Obama.  As the following table shows, 64% view her “very” or “mostly favorably”, putting her comfortably ahead of President Obama, the second most favorably viewed person and far ahead of any Republican.

 What most of the news stories downplayed, however, is that although 34% of those surveyed said that things would be better if Clinton had won, 47% said things would be about the same. (Another 13% said things would be worse).  Moreover, among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 67% said Obama is the best Democratic candidate in 2012, while only 30% want another candidate.  (Note that Clinton’s name was not listed as an option as an alternative candidate.)

This survey reinforces a point I have made before: that (and contrary to Nate Silver’s assertion) Clinton would likely run more strongly than Obama in the general election but would have a very difficult time beating him for the party’s nomination.  Given this, I have no doubt that her supporters will continue to promote her candidacy, and that these types of triggering events, whether polling data or pundits’ comments,  will continue to keep this story in the news.   And, in fairness to those who push this story, in any “normal” election cycle, as I’ve discussed here, Obama would be facing a primary challenge.

The fact that Clinton won’t challenge him, however, reminds me that perhaps Obama’s single best political move to date was nominating her to be his Secretary of State.  In November, 2008, I wrote a blog post advising Obama not to make this offer to Clinton, and advising her not to take the position if offered.  My advice was correct for Clinton – but wrong for Obama.  In fact, given his current political vulnerability, appointing Clinton as Secretary of State now seems like a stroke of pure genius.  If there is one factor that makes it difficult for her to enter the race, it’s that she’s a visible member of his administration – probably the most visible.  Given her public status, severing ties at this point in order to challenge Obama would, I think, pose a formidable psychological hurdle, never mind the political ramifications that many of you have cited in response to my previous posts on this topic.  Consider, however, if Clinton had followed my advice in 2008, and remained in the Senate.  From there it would have been much easier to act as a “shadow” president, and to position herself to challenge for the party’s nomination should Obama become vulnerable, as he has.

As I said in my first post on this subject, however, that won’t happen. Obama will be the Democratic standard-bearer and Clinton will likely serve out her term and step down no matter what the 2012 outcome.  Supporters will undoubtedly then urge her to run in 2016.  In the CNN interview, she didn’t quite close the door to a return to politics.  Whether she wants to put herself through that grueling process again, at that point in her life, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, her supporters may find some solace (or not) in this concession speech from the last Democrat to challenge his party’s President – it is worth listening to the themes he cites:

Is Obama The Strongest Democrat (as Silver Suggests)?

Is Nate Silver right? Is Obama the strongest candidate Democrats can put forward in 2012?  A student forwarded me this New York Times’ column by Silver in which he takes issue with my suggestion in this widely-circulated post  that Hillary Clinton might in fact be a stronger candidate for Democrats.  (Interestingly, Silver studiously refrains from actually mentioning Voldemort’s …. Er ….Hillary’s name until very late in the post, and then not in the context of her actually  challenging Obama.  Instead he speaks of unnamed Democrats! )

Silver pushes back on my premise, arguing instead that “The evidence, if anything points in the opposite direction: Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, and probably gives Democrats a better chance of maintaining the White House than another Democrat [Voldemort?] would.”  As evidence, Silver cites three factors:

1.First, Obama’s personal favorability ratings, at about 50%, are high relative to his job approval ratings which have sunk to 40%. He suggests that because voters like Obama personally, they may be more inclined to vote for him.

2. Second, Obama’s low approval ratings are higher than they should be given voters’ generally pessimistic view regarding the state of the nation.  Conclusion? See point one.

3. Third, there’s no reason to think any other Democrat would be able to “shed Mr. Obama’s liabilities on the economy.” Moreover, his policy views track very closely to the “typical” Democrat in Congress.  So, even if another Democrat ran, “the message would be mostly the same – but delivered by a Democrat who was probably no more effective than Mr. Obama, and who would lack the aesthetic and tactical advantages of being an incumbent president”.

Silver adds a final thought: that if Obama voluntarily stepped down he would be viewed as a “quitter” and – citing the historical examples of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 – there’s no reason to expect that his replacement would do any better.

Silver makes an interesting argument, but in the end I am not yet persuaded that he is right. To begin, as I have discussed repeatedly at this site, political science forecast models based on the “fundamentals”: – war casualties, growth in disposal income, changes in GDP – leave little room for the impact of candidate “favorability” ratings on electoral outcomes.  This actually is consistent with Silver’s third point, if not his first two – that any Democrat will be hobbled by the same conditions that, as of now, put Obama’s reelection in doubt. However, it is possible that in a very close race – and right now several of the forecast models suggest 2012 will be such a race – a candidate’s favorability ratings might matter at the margins. Rather than assume that Obama’s comparatively high favorability rating make him the de facto strongest candidate, however, we should see if any other  Democrats are viewed even more favorably?  Thinking, thinking….why yes!  Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have been consistently in the mid-60% range, significantly higher than Obama’s, dating back to the end of 2009 (as have her approval ratings).  Here’s a Gallup poll comparison from last March.

Note in particular her support among independents –  a key voting bloc that Obama won in 2008, but which Democrats lost in the 2010 midterms, as well as with Republicans.  Indeed, it is these groups that give her the advantage over Obama;  they have roughly equal favorability ratings among Democrats.

To be sure, these high favorability numbers will likely drop if she announces her candidacy – but by how much?  That’s an empirical question.

Keep in mind that although current polling typically has Hillary with a higher favorability rating than Obama, that was not the case in 2007-08, however; then her favorability ratings were consistently 5-10% below Obama’s.


However, even in the depths of the 2008 nomination fight, Clinton’s favorability ratings hovered near 50%, about even with her unfavorability ratings, in the Gallup poll.  In the CNN polls of registered voters during the 2008 nomination battle she retained even more impressive favorability/unfavorability ratings.

So, assuming candidate favorability comes into play at the margins in a close 2012 election – a big assumption – the question we need to ask is whether Clinton’s current advantage in favorability (and approval ratings) over Obama will be sustained, or will it revert to its 2008 component, or will it adjust somewhere in between? Interestingly, in this earlier post Silver suggests a potential answer: looking at the last three presidential elections, he finds a statistically significant if not substantively huge correlation between candidates’ favorability ratings in the six months before the nomination process officially kicks off in Iowa and those candidates’ favorability ratings during the actual post-Iowa primary season.  That is, early favorability ratings help predict later ones, up to a point.  If Silver is right, Hillary’s current advantage over Obama in favorability ratings may continue through the primary season.  Of course, there are all sorts of caveats to this analysis. In particular, should we use favorability ratings of someone who is not a declared candidate as a starting point?   And given the not exactly robust correlation between early and late favorability ratings, is the current difference between Clinton and Obama even substantively meaningful?

I confess I don’t know the answer to those questions.  But without those answers, I cannot, as yet, accept Silver’s argument that Obama is likely to be the strongest Democratic candidate; an equally valid case can be made that Clinton will run stronger.  Interestingly, the biggest advantage Clinton is likely to have is precisely the one that Silver cites in Obama’s favor, namely, she would lack the aesthetic and tactical DISadvantages of being an incumbent president!  In the end, Obama must run on his record.  Clinton can run on the promise of hope and change.  In a close election, that might be enough to win.

(NOTE: I’m writing a separate post on Silver’s second point that Obama’s approval ratings are outperforming the economy, so will postpone discussion of that.)

The One Reason Why Hillary Might Be More Effective Than Obama After 2012

Yesterday the New York Times finally jumped into the Hillary for President debate with this piece by Rebecca Traister.  So now I guess it’s a legitimate news story! Citing the Daily Beast article by Leslie Bennetts , which in turns draws heavily on my initial “Run, Hillary, Run” post, Traister – a Clinton supporter in 2008 – tries down to tamp the growing buyer’s remorse she detects among Obama supporters.  She writes: “Rather than reveling in these flights of reverse political fancy, I find myself wanting the revisionist Hillary fantasists — Clintonites and reformed Obamamaniacs alike — to just shut up already.” Traister argues, persuasively in my view, that had Clinton won the presidency in 2008 instead of Obama, there’s no compelling evidence suggesting she would have been any more effective. In this she echoes points made by Jonathan Bernstein in this Salon post. To be sure, Traister admits to her own bouts of buyer’s remorse, but she thinks publicly airing these thoughts is not helpful: “I understand the impulse to indulge in a quick ‘I told you so.’ I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it sometimes. Maybe often. But to say it — much less to bray it — is small, mean, divisive and frankly dishonest. None of us know what would have happened with Hillary Clinton as president, no matter how many rounds of W.W.H.H.D. (What Would Hillary Have Done) we play.”

Traister’s conclusion? “There simply was never going to be a liberal messiah whose powers could transcend the limits set by a democracy this packed with regressive obstructionists. That doesn’t mean we can’t hope for, seek and demand better from politicians and presidents. But we can’t spend our time focused on alternate realities in which our country, its systems and its climate are not what they are. With advance apologies for returning to one of 2008’s most infelicitous phrases, it’s time to let go of the fairy tales.”

Amen to that! It’s a point that long-time readers will recognize from reading my posts on this site dating to before Obama’s inauguration: that the expectations for his presidency far outstripped the reality of his actual ability to effect significant change. Although we can’t be sure, given the constraints on a president’s power, it’s hard to see how Hillary Clinton’s election in 2008 would have produced demonstrably different policy outcomes.

 But who is talking about what happened in 2008?  My “Run, Hillary, Run” post was about Democrats and voters more generally looking ahead to 2012!  And here there is one very good reason to believe that a Clinton presidency might be marginally more effective than Obama’s second term: she would not be a lame duck president.  Recent history suggests that, should Obama win reelection in 2012 (and that is no sure thing), he will almost immediately begin losing political influence. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Bush all witnessed their influence slip away during their second terms.  For Nixon, of course, the Watergate scandal and impending impeachment drove him from office. Reagan’s second term saw some accomplishments, including fundamental tax reform, but he frittered away a good deal of influence due to the Iran-contra affair. Clinton, of course, had his own second term impeachment imbroglio.  Finally, George W. Bush – Mr. Imperial Presidency – found out in short order that the political capital he pledged to spend after the 2004 election bought him little in Congress. Despite an extensive publicity tour, he was unable to get even fellow Republicans to buy into his plan to reform Social Security or immigration law, and within two years the Democrats had regained control of both the Senate and the House, thanks in part to an unpopular war and Hurricane Katrina.  In the aggregate, then, this is not a very auspicious second-term record, and while there’s no reason to expect Obama to find himself engulfed in scandal should he win reelection, neither is there any strong reason to believe he’ll defy the historical pattern and see his influence grow.  Instead, the greater likelihood is that it will begin to wane.

The reason for this seemingly inevitable decline is, I think, more structural than personal.  It has to do with the loss of political acuity that accompanies the removal of the reelection imperative.  Presidents begin to think historically,  and, in some cases, recklessly as well.  They see the end of their presidency on the horizon, and they are willing to take risks and to downplay the political constraints that they must normally navigate to achieve policy objectives.  Think FDR with his second-term court packing fiasco. (Although not subject to the 22nd amendment the expectation – one shared by FDR – was that he was not going to run again.)  Bush experienced a similar dulling of his political sensitivity.  He writes in his memoirs that he made a mistake in  pushing social security reform before immigration reform, since the latter had a greater chance of securing bipartisan support.  The failure of the first doomed the second, he believes.  He writes, “If I had to do it all over again, I would have pushed for immigration reform, rather than Social Security, as the first major initiative of my second term”.    Instead, he went for the riskier reform first, and lost both.

It is possible Obama may be the exception to this rule.   But we shouldn’t count on it.  Nor, however, should we expect a Clinton first-term to be a reprise of FDR’s celebrated 100 days.  We don’t want to fall prey again to the overly optimistic “liberal messiah” scenario.  Instead, in concert with Traister’s argument, I would expect a Clinton first-term to be perhaps even less productive, legislatively, than Obama’s first four years, in large part because she would likely be facing a Republican-controlled Congress.  The one advantage she might have is that economic growth may start accelerating during her four years. All this is speculation, of course.  The takeaway point is that, in deciding whether to jump on the Hillary bandwagon, Traister’s is the wrong question.  It’s not “What Would Hillary Have Done”?  It’s what can she do, in her first term, compared to Obama in his second?

(Note: the original post was updated at 1 p.m. to expand on the discussion of second-term presidencies)