Among Democrats who hope Hillary Clinton doesn’t run—and their number is larger than one might think—the complaints are familiar. Age and stamina are the obvious considerations. “Look at Obama’s hair color, just like George Bush’s,” says a prominent Washington insider. “Somebody who’s seventy shouldn’t be president. And I think that’s going to be an interesting issue against her, but who in the Democratic Party is going to have the guts to take on that machine?” A former Clinton campaign adviser is equally blunt. “This is gonna sound superficial”—which is an understatement—“but men do age better than women,” he says. “At seventy she’s not gonna be—it’s not gonna be great.”
Democrats fear she is too radioactive. One of many prominent D.C. Democrats who will only comment on background out of fear of inciting Clintonian wrath complains that “she will lose the general because her negatives are so high.” Then there is the not-so-secret fact that she is not a very good candidate. Hillary is often compared to the kind of politician always better in concept than as an actual flesh-and-blood candidate. Many compare her unfavorably to Al Gore or John Kerry or even Mitt Romney, stiff policy wonks with difficulty making personal connections.
Some will chalk this up to sexism—or at least the difference between men and women politicians. It is not that Hillary is not a good politician, they will say, but that American politics is not used to female candidates. “We are only now growing used to the style of women in politics. You know, they’re not backslappers, even if they are natural politicians,” says political adviser Bob Shrum, who helped lead Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns. Hillary, he insists, has grown into a natural politician.
But the real question being asked in Washington is not whether Hillary can be beaten as such, as it is whether any prominent Democrat has the guts to try to stop her.
The most obvious primary challenger, of course, is the one most often discounted. Vice President Joe Biden will turn seventy-four in late 2016. Gaffe-prone and perennially underestimated, Biden is expected to quietly step aside for the Clintons, with whom he’s had a long and friendly relationship. Unless, of course, you ask Joe Biden.
Maybe Obama has forgotten all the trash talk Hillary leveled against Obama back then—but Biden hasn’t. “You decide which makes more sense—entrust our country to someone who is ready on Day One . . . or to put America in the hands of someone with little national or international experience, who started running for president the day he arrived in the United States Senate,” Hillary Clinton told a reporter in 2007. “He was a part-time state senator for a few years, and then he came to the Senate and immediately started running for president,”1 she said in early 2007. And that was just the stuff she said on the record.
After Hillary left the secretary of state’s office, the world went on, and so did the administration. If anything, it was hard to notice she was gone. Except for personnel: Obama was free to shift over his traveling campaign press secretary, Jen Psaki, the dashing redhead who had been so harsh to Hillary on the campaign trail in 2008 that she was not allowed near the State Department until Hillary was out of Foggy Bottom. And most of the Clinton loyalists who had come to the State Department four years earlier left to cool their heels in various positions out of government while Hillary cooled hers.
On policy, John Kerry, some thought, did more for the administration in his first year than she did in her four years. He was able to carry out a key goal of President Obama’s, by beginning to work out the structure of what could be a landmark deal with Iran. And with respect to Syria, Kerry gained plaudits from pundits—and the dovish Obama—for his ability to wage hard-nosed diplomacy by publicly signaling that a deal brokered with the Russians could avert an American strike in the Middle East country. Hillary didn’t accomplish any of that. Instead, she claimed credit for the miles she flew, as if that mattered.
A former high-ranking official in the Clinton administration recently spoke to his friend Biden about Hillary’s 2016 maneuvering.
“You going to step aside for her?” he asked. “No,” the vice president replied confidently. “Fuck no.” Traditionally Biden’s stance might pose problems for Hillary. After all, vice presidents tend to win the nominations of their parties. But Biden has a major drawback. He lacks the support, even the quiet support, of the president he serves.
None of this has stopped the vice president from making plans, however. Biden has run for president twice before—in 1988, when he was forced to drop out over plagiarism charges, and again in 2008, when he was barely an asterisk against Obama and Clinton. And he still has the bug, fiercely jealous of the tendency in the press to write him off in favor of endless stories about Hillary’s maneuverings.
“And let me not forget Joe Biden, because he will call me this after- noon and remind me,” Democrat Donna Brazile once half joked during a Sunday talk show appearance where she discussed the Clinton campaign in waiting.
She isn’t the only one. The vice president or his senior aides at his behest will call reporters, pundits, anyone he feels is not giving his candidacy the credibility it deserves. He wants respect.
Though stranger things have happened in politics—like a one-term senator defeating the Clintons in 2008—few give Biden much chance of a surprise victory. One former Senate colleague says Biden could never be president. “He makes people like him, but lack of discipline is his weakness,” the senator says. “She’s far more disciplined and calculating.”
“If you take a look at every important thing that’s come out of the White House, Biden’s had his finger on it,” says a Clinton aide. “So, people underestimate Biden, and part of being a VP is being derided to a certain extent.” Still, he adds, “He can’t beat Hillary in ’16 because she starts with eighteen million votes. Everyone that voted for her in ’08 wants her to run again.”
Shrum agrees. “I think [Biden] will recognize that reality,” he says.
Allies of the vice president of course disagree with this assessment. Biden also knows there is a chance that the Clintons are bluffing. Signaling that she’s running for president to get attention, speaking fees, book deals, but not really ready to hop in. Biden, too, is gambling on her health.
So are some Republicans. “I must admit I’m completely befuddled,” admits Bush strategist Karl Rove. “My brain says yes, she’s the front- runner. My gut tells me we don’t know everything about the health issue.”
But if Hillary is bluffing, she’s doing an excellent job. Leaving nothing to chance, the undeclared candidate has gone out of her way to take swipes at Biden—something she wouldn’t likely do if her 2016 effort is just a feint. At a private event in Georgia in 2013, for example, she was asked a question about the bin Laden raid. “She took 25 minutes to answer,” a Republican state legislator present at the gathering told the Atlanta newspaper. “Time and time again . . . Clinton mentioned the vice president’s opposition to the raid, while characterizing herself and Leon Panetta, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as the action’s most fierce advocates, the paper reported.”
Dr. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, is said to be actively “counting down the days” until she can return to “normal” life. Some close to the Bidens speculate that she would “kill him if he decided to run for president.” Especially a race she doesn’t think he can win. That appears to be the only thing holding back a potential Biden 2016 run.
Among those not so secretly preparing the ground in case of a Hillary demurral: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel; and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. But they seem to believe, as one Democratic strategist put it, that “Hillary gets the first right of refusal.”
Observers believe the more potent threat is the little-known but aggressive governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. O’Malley would be fifty-four years old on Inauguration Day 2017—fifteen years younger than Hillary Clinton. He is a handsome man with impeccable liberal credentials, and “a fucking political animal,” according to Maryland politicos who know him.
Political consultants in Maryland say O’Malley is someone who could do serious damage to Hillary Clinton in the primary. One listed his assets in a race against the frontrunner: “He is mean. He has a long history of negative campaigning. He’s a good fundraiser.” In other words he’s a younger Bill Clinton.
“He’s very Bill Clinton-esque,” another consultant says. “He’s very good shaking hands and politicking.” He’s even rumored to have women issues like the former president, though none have ever been proven.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who might have been expected to support O’Malley in a primary challenge, especially considering his implicit criticisms of the Clintons when Dean ran for president himself in 2004, has fallen under the Clinton sway. The once-maverick liberal firebrand has become increasingly establishment—in fact, he chaired the Democratic National Committee during the Obama-Hillary race. “I will support her against any other foreseeable Democratic candidate,” Dean told me. But he held open at least a little wiggle room. “I like Martin O’Malley a lot.”
Disclosing that he had a recent conversation with O’Malley—“I’m not going to tell you what the conversation was,” he snapped—he adds, “I think O’Malley is very serious” about running for president in 2016.
By setting himself up as Obama’s true heir, O’Malley is poised to run to Hillary’s left. He’s been an enthusiastic backer of Obamacare and vowed to lead the nation in sign-ups for the controversial program. Major Democrats know that he’s going to be a problem for her. So they’re trying to find a way to give him something to do. He’s tested the New Hampshire waters, according to CNN, where he played a video summary of his career starting as mayor of Baltimore, which said, “Martin O’Malley formulated an assault on hopelessness.” And it claimed that he transformed Baltimore while curbing crime and took his good governance to the Maryland State House in Annapolis. It was a three-and-a-half-minute-long campaign “video befitting a national political convention-style rollout,” said CNN. And of course it was released in New Hampshire, traditionally the first state in the nation to hold a primary. As a Maryland Republican says, “He’s running, unless they buy him off.”
The most obvious payoff, of course, would be the vice presidency. A former Clinton aide envisions a scenario in which Hillary offers him the job to keep him out of the race, or to have him run as a “puppet” opposition candidate. “He’s good looking, Irish Catholic, and young,” the aide reasons. “She’s gonna need some youth, so Martin is the logical pick.”
Brian Schweitzer, a former Democratic governor from Montana, is another wild card. He’s positioning himself as an anti-corporatist, gun- toting populist who’s not shy about bringing up Hillary’s support for both the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. He’s already done that in Iowa, the state to hold the first caucus in the nation—and one where Hillary got tripped up in 2008 when she lost the contest there to Obama.
Antiwar rhetoric is a political weapon that’s previously proven to be lethal on the political left—after all, it’s not at all dissimilar from the public positions that Barack Obama was able to use to undercut the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Schweitzer might not be known yet, but that doesn’t mean he can’t level the primary field just by appearing in many debates (and performing well) before a nationally broadcast audience.
The same is true for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Her very candidacy would undercut Hillary’s bid to be the first female president and her liberal credentials are superb. Before being a U.S. senator she was the brains in the Obama administration behind the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is no pragmatist. She is purely an ideologue—which can be very helpful for riling up the base in a party primary.
Then of course there is the possibility of California Gov. Jerry Brown, who ran a stronger than expected primary campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Brown, a popular and well-known figure on the political left, has refused to rule out a run. But at seventy-six, and with a personal life that long has been the subject of a whispering campaign, Brown is an unlikely threat. He most likely seems to be basking in the attention that comes from having his name mentioned.
From CLINTON, INC.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine by Daniel Halper. Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Halper. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers