02/05/2014 07:47 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Insanely Early 2016 Speculation (Hillary Clinton Edition)

Yes, it is insanely early to be speculating about 2016. This, however, is not going to stop me from doing so. In fact, I am somewhat late to this particular party, since we've all been seeing a spate of stories about Hillary Clinton in the punditocracy for the past month or so. So, yes, this is going to be another of those pieces. If this doesn't interest you, then I strongly advise you stop reading right now and choose some more productive use of your time.

For the rest of us wonks, I have to point out that I've already written about the 2016 election previously, looking at Chris Christie (pre-bridge scandal) way back in November, and more recently laying out what a large Electoral College advantage just about any Democrat is going to enjoy in 2016.

Other than the Electoral College shift, another rather strange dynamic seems to be shaping up between the two dominant American political parties. Democrats and Republicans are reversing their traditional scenarios when it comes to nominating presidential candidates. This tradition even comes with its own bumper sticker slogan to define it: "Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line." Democrats, in other words, have a large field to pick from and select the one that everybody likes best, in the end, and then everyone enthusiastically gets behind them for the general election. Republicans, however, pretty much know who is "next in line" for the nomination, and while other candidates may put up a limited fight, everyone knows who the nominee is going to be long before the first primary happens -- after which Republicans all fall into line behind him, like him or not. But this time around the primary field is going to be wild and wooly over on the Republican side, with nobody being able to convincingly claim to be "next in line" (Rick Santorum or Paul Ryan could come closest to making such a claim, but this is going to be challenged by many others). But over on the Democratic side, there is only one woman standing, at least at this point, and her name is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton has a great argument for 2016 being "her turn." She is, without a doubt, "next in line" in the Democratic Party. After the closely fought 2008 primary season, Hillary brought the party together behind Barack Obama and later accepted a position in his cabinet. She's definitely paid her dues, party-wise. And she's already shown the ability both to raise money and to get millions of people to vote for her. There is nobody else in the Democratic Party with an equivalent claim -- the only one with even a hope of making such a claim is Joe Biden, in fact. But his claim is a fairly weak one.

This was just reflected in a Washington Post poll, which showed Hillary beating all other Democratic contenders by a wider margin than has ever been seen in such early polling. Hillary was at 73-percent support among Democratic voters. Biden was far, far behind in second place, with only a paltry 12 percent. Leading the field by a whopping 61 points is one of the reasons that Hillary's name has been in the news of late. The other reason is that there is a shadow "Draft Hillary" campaign organization that is growing and putting out press releases touting Hillary's so-far-nonexistent campaign as being all but inevitable.

Astute watchers of the political scene will note, however, that this is precisely the same argument Hillary was making roughly seven or eight years ago. Hillary was going to be the inevitable candidate for 2008, remember? This got so prevalent that people even started talking about a "coronation" rather than a primary season.

Hillary Clinton, quite obviously, remembers all this. Should she run, she will no doubt be on guard against the "inevitable" label. She will present herself as "not taking anyone's vote for granted," and "fighting hard for every vote." She will also, no doubt, not hire the same campaign consultants who told her to just clear the field on Super Tuesday and then not worry about anything after that, because by then she'd be a shoo-in. Hillary knows full well that mistakes were made the last time around, and she will be doing everything she can not to repeat them.

Of course, eight years ago few people knew the name "Barack Hussein Obama." Just because Hillary looks inevitable this far out doesn't mean she actually will be when the voting starts. There could be some charismatic up-and-comer lurking within the Democratic Party who will explode onto the political scene and sweep everyone off their feet. It is, after all, insanely early to even be talking about 2016.

My guess, however, is that this time around "Hillary is inevitable" is going to prove correct -- if she runs. I think that there will be a number of Democrats challenging Hillary in the primaries, but that they all will essentially be running to become Hillary's vice president. A number of young candidates (young enough to wait their turn for the big race until 2024, that is) will politely make their own case, without beating up on Hillary too viciously. There may be a challenge from the left, but Hillary can defuse any such candidate by shaping her own positions in a more populist manner than her husband (and Barack Obama, for that matter) did.

Hillary, if she runs, is going to be as exciting a candidate as Obama was. If elected, she would be the first woman to hold the office, of course, which is historic. She would also be the first first lady to ever rise to the job as well. Women voters will be exuberant about seeing Hillary elected. The only way Republicans could even hope to counter this would be if they nominated a female candidate as well, but at this point that seems somewhat of a long shot.

There's one question that needs a bit more attention, though: will Hillary actually run? Most people make the assumption that this is a foregone conclusion, but I'm not entirely convinced. She sure does have the "fire in the belly" to run; she's already proven that. She wants the job. She really, really wants the job, in fact. She is convinced of her ability to do the job, she thinks she'd do a good job, and she thinks she'd be the best person for the job. None of that is in question. Most Democrats would agree with at least two out of those three. But will she still be able to do the job?

Hillary Clinton, if elected, would be the second-oldest president in American history. Ronald Reagan was less than a month from being 70 years old when he was first sworn into office, in 1981. Hillary would be a few months older than 69, if inaugurated. As Reagan showed, age doesn't preclude winning elections (he was four years older for his second term, remember). But it would indeed be an issue in the campaign, and a much bigger issue than some might think. The entire Republican field of candidates is decidedly youthful-looking when stacked up against Hillary. The Republican campaign will take on the flavor of "young ideas" versus "old, stale, discredited thinking." While Hillary will be an exciting candidate for women, it remains to be seen if she'll turn out the youth vote as successfully as Obama did.

Of course, "age" is another way of saying "health." Americans want to elect someone who will be reliably healthy while in office. Republicans can be expected to suggest that electing Hillary would be a risk. The health scare she had right before leaving office will be brought up either suggestively or perhaps openly, to convince voters that the (younger, healthier) Republican is a better choice. Campaigning for president is exhaustive, and so Republicans will say that Hillary just isn't up to the challenge.

This will be tough for Hillary to get around, but by being an example of an energetic politician out on the campaign trail, she can work to defuse such worries. She will also be all but guaranteed to choose a vice presidential candidate much younger than she is, to balance out the ticket.

As for Hillary's experience, good and bad, most of it is going to be old news to just about everybody. She inoculated herself against most of it in the 2008 run, meaning nobody's going to pay much attention to opposition research from her days in Arkansas or by Bill's side in the White House this time around. The public has already formed their opinion -- good or bad -- of her earlier days, to put this another way. The only new negatives for her will stem from her term as Secretary of State, and even these have been pretty well hashed-out in the press already. The biggest two negatives from this period are that she didn't accomplish much else as Secretary of State other than flying around the world a lot, and (of course) Benghazi. Hillary will counter the first with a list of accomplishments most have forgotten, and the second by pointing out that only conspiracy theorists (and Fox News) are convinced that Hillary had anything to do with Benghazi.

Hillary Clinton may not be inevitable as the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, but she certainly is formidable, even this early. Barring any health problems, and after she writes a book and enjoys a hugely successful book tour, my guess is that she is going to toss her bonnet in the ring. The Democratic field won't be completely cleared for her, but in the end she will hire much more realistic campaign advisors and run a much more populist campaign, and she will be the odds-on favorite for the entire primary race. Hillary has the best chance of sweeping the primaries, as Democrats fall into line behind her. She is much more comfortable and much more forceful a speaker than she was when she ran in 2008, and she will be a very tough and savvy politician throughout the entire race.

However, if she has any health incidents while campaigning, then the entire race could be blown wide open. If this happens early enough, Hillary may be eclipsed by a Democrat who looks a lot better than Hillary giving speeches from a hospital bed. But if it happens in the general election itself, it could be catastrophic for the Democrats' chances of holding on to the White House -- especially if the Republican candidate is hale and hearty and young.

Like a sports star who is getting along in years, this will be the Democrats' big gamble with Hillary. Does Hillary have one more "big game" in her? If she stays healthy, then there is nobody who has more experience on the presidential campaign trail than Hillary. If she is never put on the disabled list, then she has an excellent shot of sweeping the general election as well as the primaries. She would clearly be the best candidate for the Democrats to choose, and she already polls well in front of all the possible Republican challengers. If she picks up a large "crossover" vote from Republican women, Hillary Clinton might even win an enormous landslide in the Electoral College. Before she even announces, she is already the clear frontrunner -- and my prediction is that she will remain in the front of the pack for the entire election season. As long as she stays healthy.


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