Like many people, I assumed that Hillary Rodham Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 primary meant the end of her presidential ambitions. But today, a faltering Obama presidency creates the possibility of a truly dramatic development for 2012 -- Clinton v. Obama. Drama aside, it might be the Democratic Party's best chance to hold on to the White House in the next election.
I say this as someone who supported Barack Obama and opposed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election. I still have mixed feelings about the Clintons but like many progressives, I also have mixed feelings about President Obama. Personal feelings aside, I think there is a very realistic scenario for a Hillary Clinton candidacy in '12.
Here's how it could play out...
It's December 2010 and the Democratic Party has just been handed big defeats in the November elections. They have narrow but effectively useless majorities in Congress and the president's approval ratings are hovering in the mid-40s. The recovery has seemed nonexistent to millions of Americans, and unemployment is still high.
The Democratic Party leadership sees that rising discontent among the middle class about a disconnected, rudderless Obama administration makes the possibility of major Democratic losses in 2012 seem inevitable. In a reversal of his 2008 performance, Barack Obama appears poised to actually pull the rest of the Democratic ticket down with him.
Now it's early 2011 and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls a press conference announcing that she is immediately leaving her post in president Obama's cabinet and announcing her intention to run against him for the nomination of the Democratic Party. She graciously thanks the president for allowing her to successfully serve the American people in one of the few areas of his administration seems to have gone well and says that she expects the primary to be a friendly conversation among colleagues about who is the best person to lead the country in 2012.
The press could not be more thrilled. Hillary immediately makes the rounds of the Sunday TV shows where she explains that she feels the best way she could serve the goals of the administration was to begin to work outside the system. She exhibits grace, charm and a Cheshire Cat-like smile. Clinton refuses to take the bait and say anything to undercut the administration but the look that she is giving us tells us exactly what she is thinking -- "this ain't working anymore."
In early March 2011, MSNBC apologizes to viewers for the grisly spectacle of actually seeing Chris Matthews's head explode.
Back in Chappaqua, the Clintons begin to call in favors from their over 20 years on the national political stage. Newcomer Obama has built up very little loyalty in his short tenure and is already privately perceived by many to be chum in the water. Endorsements for HRC 2012 start to trickle out, but the charge is really led by Bill Clinton. He explains to Larry King that voting for Hillary is the best way for Obama voters to get what they really wanted in 2008 on issues like health care reform.
Meanwhile, Hillary begins a listening tour explicitly aimed at bringing back the progressive base and helping to stump for congressional candidates. She tells people like MoveOn.org and the Daily Kos community while they may not always agree, she has a long history and the people know where she stands. She admits she may not be the better speaker, but she knows how to get things done. When she repeats her 2008 pledge that she will fight for the voters, she appears to have more testicular fortitude than the present.
The Obama administration is totally hamstrung against Candidate Clinton. Hillary Clinton was part of their administration and so there's almost nothing to attack her on there. Obama has already adopted Clinton's individual mandate position on healthcare, as Hillary herself points out in speech after speech. And the American people have grown cynical about the gap between Obama's speeches and his actions -- when Obama makes a reference to "hope and change" at a Fourth of July picnic in 2011, he gives Jon Stewart five minutes of material. The guest on the Colbert Report later that evening is Bill Clinton. That weekend, NBC announces that Amy Poehler is rejoining the cast of Saturday Night Live.
This is fiction but there's an underlying harsh reality for President Obama -- if she were to run against him, Hillary Clinton would beat Barack Obama soundly in the primaries and would end up being a stronger candidate against Republicans in the fall.
The policy differences between Clinton and Obama were never significant to begin with and now they are essentially nonexistent. Her arguments against him in 2008 that he was untested and inexperienced have proven to be prescient. If Obama continues to be an ineffective pragmatist, he doesn't have a leg to stand on.
Of course, we all know such a scenario is impossible. For such a thing to happen, we'd have to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton possess a truly monumental amount of ambition and thirst for political payback.
And we all know that's not true, right?