More than a month remains until President Barack Obama’s corporate-financed second inaugural, but he is already yesterday’s news. There are political battles to be fought and budgets to pass (or not pass) and most likely wars to wage and natural disasters to endure before the country elects its next president. But all of this is a sideshow to the chatterers and scribblers who are busy currying favor with the liberal establishment. The real story, we learn from our newspapers and magazines and blogs and television specials, is whether the current secretary of state will run for president in 2016.
"Hillary is running," gushed the editor of the New Yorker on Dec. 2. He’d just attended the Saban Forum, a conference on Middle East policy put on by a Democratic mega-donor whose wife just happened to be appointed a representative to the U.N. General Assembly in September. Clinton’s speech was preceded by a biographical video that seemed to David Remnick like "an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary." He compared it to "the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party." The crowd loved it.
So did the film’s subject, who joked she wanted to watch the movie again and count her various hairstyles over the years. "An old joke with Hillary," notes Remnick—he and the former first lady must be on a first name basis—"but the crowd, tickled to be there, rosy with wine, roared."
That I do not doubt. Indeed one cannot help noticing the blend of obsequiousness, obsession, insularity, and anticipation with which the political class treats the question of Hillary Clinton’s future. Dutifully conforming to Remnick’s Soviet metaphor, on Dec. 8 Michael Tomasky did his best Matvey Blanter impression and performed "Hillary is our Battle Glory" on his Daily Beast blog. No longer is Michael Tomasky talking about mere politics. "I’m talking, let us say, about the great march of history, the ineluctable links of causality, the tempora and the mores, the old mole working both underground and above." He is talking about "this context of keeping history moving forward." And in this context, Hillary Clinton "has the obligation" to run for president. "She could handily beat the whole parade of Republicans." Of course: "I could be wrong."
On the same day Tomasky paraded in the great march of history, the New York Times published a front-page story with the headline, "Hillary’s Countless Choices Hinge on One: 2016." The article was by Jodi Kantor, whose journalistic career includes an unintentionally embarrassing examination of the Obamas’ marriage and an infamous attempt to find damaging material about John McCain’s teenage daughter by contacting minors over Facebook. The headline to her latest article is somewhat misleading. After interviewing "nearly two dozen current and former aides, friends, and donors," Kantor found that Clinton’s choices are countable after all. She counts four: Does Clinton work with her husband? (Suppress your laughter.) Does she "do what she wants" or "what makes the most political sense" (is this a distinction Clinton has ever made)? Also, "How should she navigate the nonstop speculation about 2016?" And how can she increase her fortune in a "dignified way"?
At first glance this last one might not look like so hard a choice. I mean: Clinton is rich. Her 2010 net worth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, was estimated to be from anywhere between $11 million and $52 million. True, her taxes will be going up. But how much more does she really need? Well, Kantor informs us that:
Being a Clinton is expensive, and when the former secretary leaves office, she’ll want a staff and the ability to travel on private planes, friends say. The Clintons — who already own costly homes in Washington and Chappaqua, N.Y. — love renting in the Hamptons in the summer, according to friends, and buying their own home there could easily run well into the seven figures. Though friends say Mrs. Clinton could easily make a lot of money at a law firm, advising foreign countries on geopolitical risk, or at an investment bank or a private equity firm, none of those pursuits would be likely to wear well in a presidential campaign.
No, they likely would not. Private equity didn’t exactly "wear well" for Mitt Romney, did it. Joining Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger and consulting for China or Russia or Brazil probably wouldn’t look good, either. Bad press, you know. Nixon joined a law firm—but, no, that would be too much like Nixon. Real estate and cattle futures are out. So it is true: Financing a private staff and a private jet and two mansions and an exclusive summer home is not as easy as a former first lady and secretary of state might think, especially when she is navigating "the nonstop speculation about 2016."
A friend asked the other day whether there is a more ridiculous and pointless activity than contemplating Clinton’s next move. And here Kantor, toting a bag of mixed metaphors, seems to agree: "Being Hillary Clinton is never a simple matter, and her next few years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables."
But to question the worth or validity of the exercise is to miss its point. Mind-dulling coverage of Hillary Clinton is not meant to inform or clarify. It is meant to elevate Clinton, to confirm her power, to ensure a favorable relation between author and subject. James Carville’s suggestion that "90 percent" of Democrats want Clinton to run contributes to her image of invincibility. So does Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that Republicans are "incapable of competing" against a Clinton campaign. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made news this week simply by not endorsing Clinton outright. "She might even come close to clearing the Democratic field of serious opposition," observed Nate Silver. That is exactly the purpose the endless talk is meant to serve.
But to what end? Clinton after all is in a position similar to where she stood in 2005: on the cusp of the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. Look what happened. Her ascension turned out to be less inevitable than everyone assumed. The Clinton machine turned out not to be as powerful as its reputation suggested. Clinton’s approval ratings may have improved since 2008, but has her actual political status really changed? If she ran in 2016 she would still be a white senior citizen running for the nomination of a party composed largely of the young and minorities. There would be ample room for a youthful minority challenger to her left just as there was in 2008.
There is also Jonathan Rauch’s "freshness test" to consider. Presidential aspirants since Teddy Roosevelt, Rauch writes, "have to make it from first election as governor or senator—the only two offices that the public seems to regard as preparation for the White House—to either president or vice president in 14 years or less." Clinton was elected Senator from New York in 2000. By 2016 she will be past her sell-by date. And she will be 69 years old in a country where the younger candidate has won the popular vote in every election since her husband’s 1992 victory.
It would be somewhat ironic if after all of the navel-gazing and theorizing Clinton actually held to her stated intention of not running for president or, if she did run, won neither the Democratic nomination nor the presidency. In that case, however, the breathless and servile media coverage of her every utterance and activity still would have value, so perfectly does it exemplify the parochialism and herd mentality of America’s liberal elite.