By Douglas Harbrecht
Who are the Democrats kidding? They have somebody who could beat George W. Bush next year. Her name is Hillary Rodham Clinton. The only question, really, is how badly she wants to return to the White House.
This much is certain: She's foolish to think she can bide her time, strolling effortlessly to the Democratic nomination five years from now. If she wants to make history as the first woman in the Oval Office, her time has arrived.
Oh, I've read Hillary's unambiguous denials, and I've heard the analysts and pundits who say a leap into the breach now by the junior senator from New York would be catastrophic for her party and her ambitions. She's too inexperienced, they say. She would so anger the field of declared Democratic Presidential candidates that party unity would be splintered, they fret. And in a general election, she'd be a polarizing national figure.
It would be like 1968 all over again. Then, another unseasoned, junior senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, brazenly stole the fire from Eugene "Clean Gene" McCarthy, who with early primary victories had shown just how weak the sitting President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was.
TWO KENNEDYS, TWO LESSONS.
What the political savants forget is that, had he not been assassinated by a deranged Sirhan Sirhan after victory in the June, 1968, California primary, there wasn't a doubt in the world that Bobby Kennedy, an intensely polarizing figure in his day, would have won that November. The parallels are striking: Kennedy was the brother of a charismatic President despised, but also feared, by Republicans because he presided over what Americans regarded nostalgically as a golden era. Hillary is married to a charismatic President intensely disliked by Republicans but feared...well, you get the picture.
The real lesson from 1968 is just how crucial timing is in politics. Successful candidates move when the magic strikes. Just ask Bill Clinton -- he declared flat out that he wouldn't run for President in 1992 if Arkansans reelected him to a fifth term as governor of the Razorback State in 1990. Did that Clinton's fib matter? Not a wit. Bubba saw his opportunity, and he took it.
Clinton understood that the scrapheap of politics is littered with the ambitions of those who thought they could bide their time or wait their turn for a Presidential run. Ted Kennedy hemmed and hawed for years, toying with the hearts of the party faithful, until stumbling into a disastrous slugfest with Jimmy Carter in 1980. His sense of timing couldn't have been worse.
A BEATABLE PRESIDENT?
What about Mario Cuomo -- the Hamlet of the Hudson? How Democrats pined for him. How he tortured them. To run? Or not to run? His musings grew so tiresome that New Yorkers finally booted him as their governor. Or how about Bob Dole -- a GOP bedrock loyalist who won the 1996 Republican nomination with a relentless message to party stalwarts: "It's my turn." It was his turn all right -- to lose in a November landslide.
Five years isn't just a lifetime in politics, it's an eternity. What if Americans continue to sour on Bush? A few months ago, beating a likeable President during anxious times appeared to be a lost cause for the Democrats. Now, Bush's declining popularity makes it conceivable that the race could be tight next year -- even winnable for a Democrat. If Hillary is going to mount a Presidential campaign, she better do it now. Consider all the ways her presence in this election could galvanize the race:
The Democratic base. When Wesley Clark recently entered the battle for the Democratic nomination, a Newsweek poll found he had instantly become the Democratic front-runner, with 14% support among likely party voters nationally, vs. 12% for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. (Is it too early to start calling Dean "the Eugene McCarthy of 2004"?) Hillary, too, likely could quickly grab front-runner status, with 40% or higher support among likely Democratic voters.
President Bush's popularity is now at post-September 11 lows, and his lead varies from 5 percentage points to a virtual tie in a matchup with a generic Democratic foe. Against the President in a hypothetical face-off, Hillary trails by between 5 and 10 percentage points. Clark's fresh-face anonymity will benefit him just a bit longer. He's almost the generic Democrat at this point. He must win in a slugfest with nine other candidates better organized and prepared than he. He could collapse, or fade quickly. Even if successful, he'll carry heavy scars in the general election.
Hillary has no such hurdles to clear. She has virtual 100% recognition among voters. She could unite the party enthusiastically -- angry outsiders and party Establishment -- in the blink of an eye, and go head-to-head against Bush. By Douglas Harbrecht Money. Dean, still considered by many the Democratic front-runner, has impressed his rivals by generating $10 million for his campaign, tapping small donors through an impressive Internet fund-raising network. But Dean's stash pales in comparison to Bush's: George W. has already raised more than $50 million and his goal is a record $175 million.
As a Presidential candidate, Hillary would have few money constraints. She could immediately tap into the two biggest money-raising networks for Democrats -- Hollywood and the trial lawyers -- and prove a formidable match for Bush in fund-raising prowess.
Message. If you listened closely to the Sept. 25 Democratic Presidential debate, you heard fragments of an emerging Democratic message coming from 10 distinct voices. Hillary could quickly solidify these disparate themes into a center-left force that could appeal to mainstream voters, just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, when he ousted Bush's father from the White House. On the stump and in the Senate, she has learned how to both voice anger over Bush policies and advance policies popular with middle-class and working-class voters, such as health care. The debacle of her 1994 health-care reform effort is long over, and the issue is hotter than ever.
The Bill factor. No matter what you think of the former President, can you deny his charisma? The former Commander-in-Chief has emerged as a unifying figure and elder statesman for his party, much in demand on the fund-raising circuit and as a speaker at Corporate America's conferences and powwows. He goes to California, puts his arm around a highly unpopular governor, and, before you know it, Gray Davis' fight to stave off a recall no longer looks like a joke.
The Hillary factor. As much as Republicans detest her, they also consistently underestimate Hillary -- much as the Democrats do George Bush. Conservative pundit Tucker Carlson scoffed that he would eat his shoe if her memoirs sold 1 million copies. He was eating it, literally, in a matter of weeks, when the book raced to the top of the best-seller list.
Sure, Hillary consistently registers negative approval ratings with 40% of voters nationally, but just as many are mesmerized by her, and she could snap up suburban independents, women, and minority voters, all key voting blocs. If the 2004 election, more so than most contests, hinges on the parties' ability to turn out their committed supporters, Hillary would do better than any of the declared Democrats.
I'm not saying her candidacy wouldn't be controversial. You can already hear the catcalls from Republicans: The Clintons didn't steal all the furniture the first time, now they want a return visit. But that rhetoric misses the point. Hillary would be a formidable foe against a sitting President who looks more politically vulnerable by the week.
Perhaps Hillary is sincere in her repeated dismissals of a 2004 run. Perhaps she really doesn't want to be President. But if she truly thinks Bush's reelection would be "an overwhelming setback for this country," as she put it in issuing another denial run recently, she won't bide her time until 2008. It's now -- or maybe never.
Harbrecht is executive editor of BusinessWeek Online