Don’t bet on Hillary in ’04

From Al Gore’s decision not to run to Howard Dean pushing John Kerry from front-runner status to the surprise success of Wesley Clark, the Democratic presidential nomination battle has certainly had its share of presumed front-runners and surprising changes of fortune. Will there be any more twists and turns?

A sizable group of political observers believe that there will be and have pumped up the notion that Hillary Clinton may jump into the race. The theory is that Hillary was planning to wait until 2008 to run, believing that any Democrat was sure to lose to President George W. Bush. With Bush’s approval ratings falling steadily, though, Hillary has become worried that a Democrat could beat Bush and thus kill any chance of her running until 2012. Thus, she is carefully watching Bush’s rankings, weighing whether to make her move now or wait four years.

That, at least, is the theory, but it is not a very impressive one. Running in this election would probably not help Hillary’s long-term political stature. If she were to jump in after having stated repeatedly that she wasn’t going to run, she would have a huge credibility problem, which opponents would be able to exploit by painting her as an opportunist. In addition, she has not completed her first Senate term, which is set to end in 2006, and she would be vulnerable to the charge of inexperience and not without reason: All the Democrats currently running, except Al Sharpton and Clark, have more political experience than Hillary.

Conventional wisdom holds that Hillary would win the nomination easily if she were to enter the race. Certainly, there are polls to support this thesis, but I believe she would have more trouble than people think. Winning the nomination isn’t about being on top of national polls, it’s about winning key primary states. Hillary would have to contend with powerful Dean and Clark grassroots networks in these states, and it seems doubtful that any candidates would drop out if she entered the race. With many party professionals already committed to one candidate or another, a Clinton victory would be far from a sure thing.

If Hillary does not enter the race, on the other hand, she will remain a powerful figure in the Democratic Party, have a decent shot at capturing the vice-presidential nod (especially if the nominee is the Clinton-connected Clark) and be the logical front-runner for 2008 if the Democrats lose to Bush next year. Hillary is a smart politician and if she were going to run she would have joined the race earlier in the year, when the field was more open.

Why, given all this, does the idea of Hillary’s running persist? There are two reasons, from different ends of the political spectrum. There are many on the liberal side who are desperate to beat Bush and love the thought of Hillary sweeping in and returning the Democrats to power. And on the conservative side there is such hostility to and suspicion of the Clintons that it is easy to believe that Hillary must be nefariously planning a run, even when evidence suggests otherwise.

A recent case in point: Wesley Clark has surrounded himself with many of Bill Clinton’s former associates and has garnered kind words from the ex-president. Doesn’t Clinton’s near-endorsement of Clark make a Hillary run less likely? Not according to conservative New York Times columnist William Safire, who on Sept. 22 proposed that the Clinton’s were using Clark to defeat Dean and pave the way for Hillary’s nomination. “If Bush stumbles and the Democratic nomination becomes highly valuable,” Safire wrote, “the Clinton’s probably think they would be able to get Clark to step aside (…) rewarding his loyalty with second place on the ticket.”

It’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely. Both Clintons probably prefer Clark to Dean, but there is no reason to believe that Clark is not sincerely trying to win the 2004 nomination. Hillary will probably not be joining that quest. If she does enter the race, I’ll feel stupid, but, in the meantime, don’t be fooled by speculations on Hillary running written by either Hillary-lovers or Hillary-haters.

Patrick Hart, Swarthmore Phoenix Swarthmore College, P.A.