WASHINGTON -- When former President Bill Clinton visits the White House on Friday, both he and Obama will have no shortage of political conversation topics. Chief among them will be reversing the course of a presidency stalled out by a mid-term electoral drubbing -- a fork in the road that both have faced. Somewhere lower down the list will be dealing with insurrection within the party ranks.
While talk has been pervasive this past week over the possibility (or lack thereof) of a primary challenger taking on Obama in 2012, it is nothing compared to the chatter that surrounded Clinton in 1994.
"Privately, a number of Democrats advance this dream," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote on Christmas Day 1994. "Clinton withdraws after being badly wounded in the early primaries, the party unites behind Vice President Al Gore, and Democrats retain the White House in 1996."
A Times Mirror Center For the People & The Press poll (now know as the Pew Center) taken in early December found that "two-thirds of Democrats want someone in their party to challenge President Clinton for renomination," sparking, naturally, a bit of press coverage.
The late William Safire of the New York Times wrote with near certainty that "Democrats afflicted with can't-win blues can expect a primary challenge to the President," before floating one possibility (Ross Perot) and then homing in on another: "the respected anti-partisan David Boren (D-Okl), 52."
Boren himself fanned the flames, declaring that the president should give "serious consideration" to not seeking re-election.
Safire wasn't the only Times-man to dabble in the primary-challenge analysis. The paper ran a front-page story, authored by the venerable R.W. Apple Jr., under the headline "Clinton's Grip on '96 Ticket Not So Sure."
The next day, the New York Post followed suit with a front-page blare: "IT'S TIME TO DUMP BILL."
Frank Sesno, the former CNN correspondent, breathlessly declared on air: "Listen, I had a very, very senior member of the Democratic Congressional scene tell me this past week that he sees almost no scenario under which Bill Clinton avoids a primary challenge and, in any case, can be reelected."
And in a year-end interview with wire service reporters, Clinton himself was asked about the possibility of being challenged. He responded, unequivocally and not unexpectedly, that he would run for re-election and was "not worried" about the primaries.
Nor did he need to be. Clinton would, of course, face only token opposition for the nomination. Former Governor Bob Casey (D-Penn.) was the one potential candidate who truly considered challenging the president. But he chose not to, citing health reasons. The predictable Lyndon LaRouche run for the presidency was made to no one's real surprise or notice. Clinton cruised to re-nomination and from there a second term in office. The post-1994-election prognostications proved, ultimately, a waste of ink, paper and airtime,
There were, it should be noted, some people who got it right at the time. "Meet the Press" Host Tim Russert called it "idle punditry" and "just plain dumb." Paul Begala, whose job as a Clinton aide included tamping down the primary-challenge rumors, said the chatter was "just flat out wrong."
So it was not entirely surprising to find out that Begala was equally bearish on the idea that Obama might face a primary challenge of his own. Sure, Democrats have a history of intra-party gunfights. In 1952, Harry Truman lost the New Hampshire primary to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. In 1968, Eugene McCarthy challenged Lyndon Johnson. In 1980, Jimmy Carter faced a bid from Ted Kennedy. In each of these cases, the president was irrevocably damaged. But the idea that the same circumstances would trip up Obama were just as unhinged from political realities as when they were applied to a much more damaged Clinton in 1994.
"As my kids say, NHD: Not happening dude," said Begala. "This is a total NHD. Now why, it's for the same reasons as Clinton. First and most importantly talent matters. Bill Clinton is the most talented politician in my life. Look it up, Barack Obama is the first black guy to win this thing. He is a colossal talent and talent matters. Who the hell wants to take him on? I don't care if he is weakened up or down. He is only going to be more talented the more he does this.
"You know, I'm not an Obama Kool-Aid drinker. But who in the world would want to climb in the ring with this guy?"