Will Hillary Clinton run for president? It is the question that will dominate politics for the next sixteen months.
Some say Hillary has lost the edge needed to endure another grueling presidential campaign. But make no mistake: She will run, and she will be formidable.
Hillary is every bit the political animal that Barack Obama or her husband Bill are; in fact, she may be even more ambitious and ruthless. And nobody can doubt that winning the presidency has been on her mind since she stunningly and tearfully lost the Democratic primary to Obama in 2008.
But one must go back much further, to her childhood and early political career, to understand the extent of Hillary’s unmitigated ambition and the intensity of her obsession with becoming America’s first woman president.
Hillary Plays Coy
An April poll conducted by the Hill newspaper found that only 51 percent of Americans believe Hillary will run for president in 2016. It is hard to blame voters for thinking she won’t run—it’s a myth perpetuated in the media, by Hillary’s friends and associates, and Hillary herself.
Consider these recent headlines:
“Three Signs That Liberty Medal Recipient Hillary Clinton Won’t Run for President in 2016” (here).
“Why Clinton and Biden Won’t Run in 2016” (here).
“Hillary Clinton’s Relationship Status with 2016: It’s Complicated” (here).
“If Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Run, How Screwed are Democrats?” (here).
In May, Politico’s Roger Simon wrote, “I have gone from a nonbeliever to an agnostic as to whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016.”
Mother Jones’s David Corn told Chris Matthews on “Hardball,” “I’m not convinced yet that Hillary is going to run, because she’ll be 69.”
In June the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut wrote that Hillary was looking forward to being away from politics after stepping down as Secretary of State. “Friends” of Clinton told Kornblut, “Clinton truly does not think she will run again.” Kornblut interviewed several Clinton advisors and concluded “They were split: some thought she should not run again, while others expressed strong interest in her doing so.”
Then there is Hillary herself. “I’ve said I really don’t believe that’s something I’ll do again,” she told Barbara Walters in December about another campaign.
Hillary has seemed even more resolute in other interviewers. She told the New York Times’ Gail Collins, “Oh, I’ve ruled it out,” and on CNN she said, “Look, I’m flattered. I am honored…[but] that is not in the future for me…”
Of course, if Hillary is known for anything more than her ambition it is her willingness to lie. Soon after becoming a U.S. senator in 2001, a New York Post reporter asked her “So, Senator Clinton, are you ruling out a run for president not just in 2004, but in 2008 and beyond?”
“Yes,” was her quick response.
Hillary’s Grand Ambitions
Hillary’s political ambitions started long before her first run for office. A former friend told Carl Bernstein for his 2008 book A Woman in Charge that in elementary school Hillary was “absolutely political” at a time when “politics wasn’t cool.”
Hillary’s first campaign for president occurred not in 2008 but in 1963, when she ran for student body president of her Illinois high school. She lost on the first ballot and took it hard, but it only boosted her resolve to get elected in college.
“The sting of her electoral defeat for senior class president in high school was still raw” wrote Bernstein. “And so deliberately, step by step, she laid the political groundwork to be ensured of winning the highest post at Wellesley: president of the student government.” She accomplished her goal as a junior. (It is perhaps revealing that the only presidential race Hillary has ever won was at Wellesley, an all girls’ school.)
When Hillary married Bill it was clear that, though she would allow him to pursue political office first, she was an equal partner, and that her time to run would come. In the 1970s they made a pact, what they called their “20-year project,” a long-term political plan that involved both of them making it to the Oval Office.
Once when the Clintons first arrived in Arkansas, one of Bill’s girlfriends happened upon a “love letter” from Hillary. But Bill’s paramour was shocked when she read the letter. As Jeff Gerth notes in Her Way, “This was hardly the usual love letter. It was all about their mutual ambition, a game plan for reaching their shared calling.”
As a veteran U.S. senator put it to Gerth, “[Hillary] has a driving ambition that transcends her husband’s. In fact, much of his ambition comes from her — and there’s no question he has plenty.”
The Clintons had their plan, but at times it seemed as though Hillary, unable to contain her ambition, wanted to get ahead of it. When Bill was considering not running for re-election as governor of Arkansas in 1989, Hillary mulled running herself. “Hillary called up a friend and former newspaper publisher in the state…and asked ‘What would happen if I ran for governor?’” Gail Sheehy writes in Hillary’s Choice. She didn’t run, of course, mainly because polling showed most Arkansans didn’t consider the first lady a plausible governor.
In an interview early in his 1992 presidential campaign, Sheehy asked Bill if he ever feared being upstaged by his wife.
He didn’t blink. “I’ve always liked strong women,” he told Sheehy. “It doesn’t bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she could be president, too.”
“So, after eight years of Bill Clinton?” Sheehy asked, half-jokingly.
“Eight years of Hillary Clinton. Why not?” Clinton responded without missing a beat.
In 1992 Team Clinton based their entire campaign on the premise that by voting for Clinton voters would be getting “two for the price of one” — and they weren’t talking about Clinton’s official running mate, Al Gore.
Once in the White House, Hillary was not content to play the role of traditional first lady. Hillary dove into a botched attempt to reform healthcare and a number of other important initiatives. As a White House official close to Hillary told journalist Ed Klein, “Hillary never wanted to be a wife. She wanted to be president.”
By the time Bill left office, Hillary had been eyeing the presidency as intently as her husband eyed busty interns. A junior White House staffer told journalist Chris Andersen, “There was a lot of talk about ‘The Plan.’ [The Clintons] joked around about it in a cloak-and-dagger way, but you could tell they were serious.” After Bill’s term was up, “their entire focus was going to be on getting Hillary back in.”
It was widely believed that Hillary intended her 2000 campaign for U.S. Senate to be a springboard to higher office. As an anonymous senator told R. Emmett Tyrrell and Mark Davis for their book Madame Hillary:
This is a woman who’s been first lady, who’s lived in the White House and shared power with a president. The Senate itself is too casual, the power is too diffuse, for her to be happy. Her ambition is not the Senate leadership….Her ambition is the White House.
Some pundits have suggested that Hillary will be too old to run in 2016. But if anything, she will be in a better position in three years than she was in 2008.
She’ll be 69 on Election Day 2016, two years younger than John McCain in 2008, four years younger than Bob Dole in 1996 and the same age as Ronald Reagan in 1980. She’ll also be four years younger than the man who at this point seems likely to be her most formidable primary opponent, Vice President Joe Biden.
And next time around Hillary will arguably have more experience than any president since George H.W. Bush, having served as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
Hillary is also more popular than ever. After resigning as Secretary of State, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll put her approval at 69 percent, against just 25 percent disapproval.
According to Gallup’s yearly survey, Clinton has been the most admired woman in America each of the last 11 years.
Nate Silver has labeled her the strongest non-incumbent in U.S. history.
One reason why many potential presidential candidates decide against running is that they don’t want to put their families through the ordeal of a campaign. We know that won’t be a problem for Clinton.
In fact, Hillary will be doing Bill a favor by running. A Hillary presidency would be as much Bill’s third term as Hillary’s first. And it’s a third term he desperately wants.
In The Amateur, Ed Klein recounts an episode in the summer of 2011 in which Bill, with a few friends watching, begs Hillary to challenge Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination.
What’s interesting about the exchange is not that Bill tries to convince Hillary to run — it’s common knowledge that he yearns to be back in the White House and that he loathes Obama — or that Hillary ultimately decided not to run. Rather, it was Hillary’s reaction: she appeared to consider the idea of running against her boss. According to Klein’s witness, even Chelsea came down on the side of her mother challenging the sitting president.
The Presidency or Bust
Hillary feels she is entitled to the presidency. She wants to claim what she feels is owed to her for everything she has done over the last 35 years, from following Bill to Arkansas, to cleaning up his messes and defending his every indiscretion. After all that, she won’t settle for any of the alternative positions someone of her stature would be expected to take — philanthropist, foundation head or college president.
It is well known that Bill decided he wanted to become president at age 16, when he met President Kennedy at the White House. Hillary has said she was raised to become the first woman Supreme Court justice. But there have been four women on the court now. If Hillary were nominated to the court, it would be interesting, but not trailblazing. Only the presidency will do.
The Clintons are narcissists who cannot live without the power and prestige that only the presidency can bestow. As David Rupert, Hillary’s first serious boyfriend once said, “Self-advancement is all they’ve ever cared about. Ambition is the word most often used by those who know her best. There was always the perfectionist, the drive, always the ambition.”
When Hillary announced her intention to run for president in 2008, she wrote, “I’m in, and I’m in to win.” But she didn’t mean just for 2008. She’s in to win, and she’s in until she wins.