Happy New Year, now let’s talk politics, specifically that long forgotten subject – Democratic politics.
Ok, maybe forgotten is pushing it a bit too far, but with the Republican primary process well and truly underway and the incumbent Democratic president running unchallenged, there’s not much for us on the left to do politically except remark on the dog and pony show of ultra-conservatism that’s bumbling its way around the country. I suppose that it’s that kind of party boredom that’s mostly to blame for this kind of story, but there might just be more to it. The latest incarnation of the “Hillary for VP” meme comes from a New York Times opinion piece by Bill Keller published Monday and another in the Washington Post by Suzi Parker from yesterday. The points they makes are much the same as in most of the other renditions of this tune that’s been playing off and on almost since this administration began, but there has been a decidedly different reaction to the notion of Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden switching places this time around. It’s no longer treated as some crazy idea being floated by Clinton diehards (highly unlikely) or desperate Obama fans (also ridiculous) that has no basis in reality let alone fact. Monday night this opinion piece was discussed all over the place on cable news in spite of it being the day before the New Hampshire primary and discussed with some degree of seriousness albeit prefaced by numerous “this will never happen”-type comments. The truth is that, no matter how unlikely the scenario, you never know. I mean, did you think that the question of whether or no states can ban contraception would be a question in this year’s presidential primary debates at this time four years ago?
“Ok, so it’s a thing, but why and how would it work?” you ask. Well, even though I’m in no way involved in national politics or punditry (Not that I wouldn’t like to be, in case anyone in those fields is looking to hire. 🙂 ), I have just as good an imagination as the rest of them, so, if you would like, let’s take a stroll around Speculationville. We’ll start with the “why”.
2008 was the year of Hope and Change. The nation was weary of war and increasingly unnerved by the steepening decline in our economy. People were looking for something fresh and optimistic – a feel good candidate – and they found that in the calm persona of “No Drama Obama”. There is, however, a downside to being seen as Mr. Cool and that’s running the risk of looking too ‘on point’ and scripted. Obama needed a foil that brought a more approachable, down to earth ‘average Joe’ quality to the ticket and they got just that in an ever likable, if chronically gaffe-prone, senator from Delaware by the name of Joe Biden. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the past four years, the mood of the country has shifted. Our idealistic search for something new has given way to old cries, from the eighties and even earlier, of “fat cats” and “corporate greed” versus a shrinking middle class and growing number of people on some form of government assistance leading some candidates to insinuate that these lower-income people are lazy. It’s all remarkably similar to the Reagan era arguments about “welfare Queens” and the financial culture of hostile takeovers and Gordon Gekko types running the show on Wall St. At the same time we have seen the rise of the Tea Party culminating in the Great Butt-Kicking of 2010 which flipped the balance of power in the House of Representatives and shifted the political dialogue of the entire country well to the right of anywhere I’ve ever seen it. The moderates, Republican and Democrat alike, were excised in favor of more partisan candidates and the resulting Congress has been deadlocked ever since. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve almost-but-not-quite shut down the government. Is it four times now? Six? I don’t remember.
So this year is shaping up to be a Smackdown election worthy of a Pay Per View cage match and the respective political parties are looking for prize fighters. The Republicans are looking for a defender of tax cuts and a champion of smaller government and business interests. The Democrats are looking for fighter for workers and the middle class and a protector of programs that they see as vital. What Democrats have is a very mellow, professorial president with an affable everyman as his VP. The Republicans are searching and re-searching their candidate field in the vain hope that one of their potential nominees is the much longed for second coming of Ronald Reagan and Democrats are kind of left to pine for their second coming of FDR.
The Democratic presidential candidate is decided by default, or should I say incumbency, but there is still that unfulfilled desire for a fighter. Someone who will have no problem going a couple of rounds with the Republicans on the Hill, conservative pundits, or maybe both at once without flinching. Joe Biden, as likable as he is, doesn’t strike most people as a tough guy, so regardless of the good job he’s done, he’s not necessarily what a lot of Democrats are looking for this time around. If there is one thing that Hillary Clinton is known for, it is her strength and her tenacity and throughout her time as both a political spouse and a political figure in her own right she has never, ever had any problems with taking it to Republicans at all. There was one instance during one of her husband’s gubernatorial races when she crashed a press conference his opponent was holding to criticize the then Governor for being out of state and Mrs. Governor Clinton took him on herself. I don’t think anyone has any doubt that she’d know how to handle these tea folk and that’s why I think this rumor never quite goes away. The fact that she’s the most popular government figure in the country right now doesn’t hurt either.
The mechanics of how a Biden/Clinton switch would happen takes us deeper into the realm of completely unsubstantiated guessing games. It’s worth noting that removing Biden from the ticket does have some serious drawbacks. Just look at the coverage the replacement of White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley got even though it was primary time in New Hampshire. That would increase exponentially if it were Joe Biden that was on his way out, even if it was just to head down to Foggy Bottom. Coverage like that is rarely a net positive. It would look bad to demote someone who has been such a loyal and hardworking member of the administration. It could also be spun out as a sort of Hail Mary play by a desperate candidate and put the new Obama/Clinton campaign on the defensive from the get go.
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the administration had weighed their options and decided that the switch was both possible and worth the risk. Hillary Clinton would have to leave the State Department before the swap was announced because, by law, a Secretary of State can not play a role in domestic politics. Her pretext for doing so is anyone’s guess, but it would not be due to any difference of opinion between her and the White House, obviously. She’s mentioned retirement enough that an announcement to that effect might be the way she’d go, take a couple of months off to rally her people, and then, on some beautiful afternoon in the Rose Garden, there she’d be – as Barack Obama’s new running mate. Immediately the question would be raised – the question that is always raised where Hillary Clinton is concerned. What about Bill?
In the years since he left office, Bill Clinton has become an elder statesman par excellence. His foundation is involved in numerous charitable endeavors the world over and his annual Clinton Global Initiative event is such a big deal that he has to hold it on the same week as the UN General Assembly so as to be more convenient for his international attendees who are going to the UN anyway. He also has a Global Initiative specifically for undergrad and graduate students interested in NGO work which his daughter play a significant role in. He was named the Obama Administration’s Special Envoy to Haiti after that country was decimated by an earthquake. He has appeared several times in support of the President’s economic agenda and has proven to be a rather good surrogate seeming to have learned from his mistakes in his wife’s presidential bid. He has also written two books. In short, he’s got a lot going on and some of that work might present a conflict of interest if his wife was the vice presidential nominee. He had to make significant changes in order for her to become Secretary of State and I imagine that he would have to make more if she was second in line to run the country. My feeling is that he’d leave most of the foundation’s operations in someone else’s hands. In addition to getting rid of any perceived conflicts, it would also be a sort of trial run for the organization to see how it would operate when Bill Clinton retires. During this time the foundation could be prepared to run for decades and become a part of Bill Clinton’s legacy as opposed to his pet project. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the globe-trotting former president held a press conference, heaped praise upon his wife, headed out on the campaign trail, and then to DC. His elder statesman skills might come in handy and he could prove to be an asset to the administration, a kind of Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary’s FDR.
I’ll end my completely amateur, uninformed, armchair analysis by saying that this whole thing is about as likely as me appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition… or voting Republican. It’s all conjecture and the conjecture of someone with no inside information, but I’ve heard too much about this idea being entirely bogus and it’s not. It’s certainly unlikely, but it’s not bogus and that’s why I sketched it out this way. Hillary Clinton would be good for Barack Obama in the same way that New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie is such a good surrogate for Mitt Romney, another “Mr. Cool, Calm, and Collected”. She is a veteran of many partisan fights and would make a good “Iron Lady for the Middle Class” if that’s what the administration thinks they need in 2012. I think this issue is hinged on what the traveling circus that is the Republican primary constructs for a message and a ticket. If it’s something like Romney/Christie, there might be a new, and yet very familiar, running mate for the President.