One of the risks in asking Bill Clinton for help, as Barack Obama is finding out this week, is that before he utters a word he dominates the conversation. The Democrats gather this week in Charlotte to renominate the first black president–who in some cases, like health care reform and the killing of Osama bin Laden—accomplished what Clinton famously failed to do. Yet no one wants to talk about Barack Obama—not the campaign surrogates who get asked whether voters are better off now than they were four years ago (they aren’t); not the party faithful wondering where hope and change went; and not the Democratic elected officials grumbling about the self-centered behavior of the president.
And not the media, either. Yesterday’s political talk shows and round tables seemed consumed by the Clinton-Obama dynamic—have you heard that a source told a source who told a reporter that Clinton told Ted Kennedy that Obama would have been carrying Bill and Ted’s bags just a few years before he had the audacity run for president against party royalty? Yes, you have heard. Everyone has, because no one will stop talking about it. It comes from Ryan Lizza’s comprehensive review of the relationship between the two men, which also offers a good window into how Clinton weighs using his powers of persuasion. (Clinton finally decided Obama’s election was worth supporting because with his wife as secretary of state he could fundraise the heck out of rich foreign donors for the Clinton Global Initiative. Welcome to the mind of Bill Clinton.)
But that nugget of information about the Global Initiative stands out to me far more than some of the other pieces of the story. And that’s in part because of what Jonathan wrote about earlier: the possibility that Obama may run again 2016 if he loses in November. Every guest and “expert” called upon to opine on Clinton’s motives took for granted the idea that Clinton does not want Obama to be reelected, and therefore his speech this week is intended to play scorpion to Obama’s frog.
But I’m not so sure. If Obama loses in November and decides not to run again in 2016, the path is basically cleared for Hillary Clinton. But if Obama loses and decides to run in 2016, it will almost surely herald the end of Hillary’s hopes for the presidency. Even if Obama loses in November and gives Hillary the shot in 2016, it would mean she would have to unseat a sitting president—far from impossible, but a challenge nonetheless.
So what’s the best possible scenario for Hillary Clinton? It might just be an Obama victory, and then a wide open race in 2016, cleared of serious primary opposition and without an incumbent to unseat. Now, this does not mean it would be easy. And it’s possible to envision a scenario in which beating an incumbent Romney, if he were unpopular, would be easier than if the Clintons—perpetual ambassadors to the past—tried to rise to the throne once more by beating some of the GOP’s young stars. And you could argue that expecting a party to win the White House three times in a row would be just as tough as beating an incumbent.
Additionally, if Hillary had to follow a two-term historic president the expectations would be higher and the failure, if she indeed failed, more acute. Bill’s own legacy would be left somewhat intact as well with an Obama loss. Nonetheless, mutual victory is almost certainly more desirable for the Clintons than mutual failure. Thus, Clinton may see more value in an Obama victory than pundits seem to think.