Hillary Bets on Bush

If you assume that Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York intends to be elected president someday, you can also assume she is now betting George W. Bush will be re-elected next year.

“I am absolutely ruling it out,” said Clinton last week of seeking the presidency in 2004.

Admittedly, Hillary wasn’t testifying before a federal grand jury. She was visiting the New York State Fair. But unless her statement depends on what the meaning of “absolutely” is, it should now be clear Mrs. Clinton isn’t running.

That’s great news for President Bush. Not because Hillary could beat him, but because she apparently believes no Democrat is likely to do so.

If she thought a Democrat had a good chance of winning, she would run.

The same Associated Press story that reported Hillary’s statement at the state fair observed: “A 2004 Democratic victory by another candidate would likely delay any Clinton run for the White House until 2012, when she should be 65 years old.” Otherwise, she would have to challenge an incumbent Democrat in 2008.

Conclusion: Mrs. Clinton is planning to run for an open White House in 2008.

True, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts ran against Democratic President Jimmy Carter in 1980. But Kennedy lost, ending his presidential ambitions for good. Yes, Ronald Reagan ran against Republican President Gerald Ford in 1976, but Reagan lost, too–although he was elected four years later at age 69.

Still, in 2012, Mrs. Clinton may not be able to count on being as popular, vigorous or lucky as Ronald Reagan was in 1980. Reagan was a former movie star and governor and famously affable. Mrs. Clinton is none of those things, and would probably have to spend the next nine years in the Senate fighting partisan battles to keep herself in the public eye.

The key factor in Reagan’s 1980 victory was something he could not control. History came around to him: The White House was occupied by a Democratic president, who, facing twin crises in the economy and foreign policy, disastrously pursued the twin policies of appeasement and big government which Reagan had consistently decried throughout his political career.

If Mrs. Clinton has concluded this election cycle will not be the Democrats’ version of 1980, she may suspect it will replay 1984, when Reagan was re-elected easily.

It is not difficult to see why. George Bush is no Jimmy Carter. Faced with economic and foreign policy crises of his own, he has responded in Reaganesque manner with an aggressive war on terrorism and a series of major tax cuts. The results: No new terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and an economy that is beginning to boom again. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll completed Aug. 26 showed that 66% of Americans approve of how the president is fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department estimated last week that the economy grew at 3.1% in the second quarter, while many analysts believe it is growing faster than that now.

The USA Today poll put Bush’s job approval rating at 59%; and it has him leading a generic Democratic challenger, 51% to 39%.

If the election were this year, the Democrats could not beat Bush in a referendum on the two biggest issues: national security and the economy. They will have little chance of beating him next year unless there is a significant change in the trend in at least one of these areas.

As Hillary observes these trends from the sidelines, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean–an unabashed left-winger who opposed the Iraq War, wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts, and who signed Vermont’s gay civil unions law and would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act–is emerging as the Democrat to beat for the nomination. A recent Zogby International poll of likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire gave him a 38% to 17% lead over Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Yet, in the same poll, 64% of Democrats said they thought it was likely that President Bush would be re-elected.

Does Hillary share their view? It looks like she’s betting the White House on it.