Hillary's Plan

There has been a lot of talk recently about Hillary Clinton’s political game plan. Will she run for president in 2004? Wait until 2008? Is she backing Gen. Wesley Clark, or some other stalking horse, for the 2004 nomination? Might she take the vice presidential spot on his team, expecting him to lose but polishing her own credentials for the top spot next time? Or does she have some even more devious scheme in mind?

Actually, Clinton’s game plan, though suitably Machiavellian, is not all that complicated.

Sen. Clinton wants to be president of the United States. She has a large constituency of passionate admirers around the country that wants her to be president. There is also a large constituency that will oppose her until its dying breath. As a matter of fact, I suspect the latter to be larger than the former, but I may be wrong. In any case, she is certainly entitled to try her luck. Moreover, polls indicate that she is the overwhelming choice of Democrats for the nomination, any year she decides to run. So why not give it a shot?

The conventional wisdom, however, is that President Bush is going to be extremely hard to be beat next year. That was certainly true in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and the victorious wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while his poll ratings have been declining recently, as the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq has proved more painful than anticipated, he is still the odds-on favorite to win in 2004. This will be particularly true if the economy continues to improve and if the situation in Iraq begins to look better. Above all, the voters regard Bush as a strong leader in the all-important war against terrorism.

So Sen. Clinton’s present intention is to skip 2004 and set her sights on 2008. However, for this plan to be successful, the Democratic candidate in 2004 must lose. Then he or she will be running for re-election in 2008 and Clinton will have to cool her heels.

Luckily, as noted above, the 2004 Democratic nominee is very likely to lose. Then Sen. Clinton must contrive her own re-election to the Senate in 2006 (to lose that would effectively end her political career). Unfortunately, it is quite possible that the Republican nominee for her seat will be former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a fearsomely popular figure who would give Sen. Clinton a truly exhilarating run for her money. But she has no choice but to run that risk, and has a reasonable chance of surviving.

Once re-elected to the Senate in 2006, Clinton can breeze to the 2008 Democratic nomination. She has only to indicate her willingness to run, and the party will nominate her by little short of acclamation.

Of course, the Republicans will have a candidate, too — perhaps Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, or the attractive governor of Colorado, Bill Owens. But Sen. Clinton can hope that eight years of George W. Bush will, at least temporarily, have worn out the popular welcome of the Bush family, and that, after eight years of government by the GOP, voters will be ready to give the Democrats a chance to show what they can do.

But what if, despite all expectations, the economy and situation in the Middle East conspire to render President Bush a political basket case by, say, next spring? In other words, what if it suddenly appears that the Democratic nominee in 2004 is likely to win?

There is no reason why Sen. Clinton can’t accelerate her schedule and let her party know that she is, after all, willing to accept its presidential nomination in 2004. Poor Howard Dean will simply have to return to Vermont and practice medicine. Neither he nor any other candidate could withstand the tsunami of enthusiasm for Clinton.

One way or another, we are going to encounter that lady in our future. We had better be ready.