SACRAMENTO, June 17 (UPI) -- "I want to make it clear that I have not made a decision as to whether to seek the nomination" -- Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in the summer of 1991.
"People will let you change your mind if you give them a good explanation for why you're changing." -- Bill Clinton on a possible presidential run.
"Things change." -- The future President Clinton after announcing his candidacy for 1992.
"I have no intention of running for president." -- Hillary Clinton in 2003.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has already categorically removed herself from the 2004 presidential race. There is no reason to doubt her word as she has already announced that she is running for re-election to the Senate in 2006. But the massive wave of publicity for the launch of her memoirs has put her back in the spotlight in ways that every politician must envy.
"Living History" sold an astonishing 40,000 copies in one day and nearly 250,000 in one week, making it the hottest political book ever. Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg once wrote that, "there is little real sense in playing the political 'what if' game -- except that it is addictive." And when a non-candidate is overwhelmingly overshadowing the other nine announced candidates for the Democratic nomination, the speculation will go on endlessly.
Even at this absurdly early date, the "chattering classes" are already running Hillary for President in 2008. Former Clinton campaign aide Dick Morris already flatly says that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic frontrunner in 2008. We simply do not know whether a Democratic candidate will oust President Bush next year, in which case Clinton will have to wait until at least 2012. Nor can we be sure that Clinton will be re-elected to her Senate seat: current New York polls show that former New York City Mayor and Sept. 11 hero Rudy Giuliani is running 19 points ahead of her. But if Bush is re-elected and leaves office in 2008, the Democrats will need a powerhouse candidate.
Clinton has said that she'll probably never seek the Oval Office. Of course, she is not running for president right now. But as Bill Clinton said, "things change." If the considerable asset of incumbency in a time of crisis carries Bush to a second term in 2004, he will be forced to retire in 2008. And if Clinton is re-elected in 2006, she'll likely be a major player in 2008 and for many years thereafter. What are Hillary Clinton's prospects on the national level?
The first issue would be gender. Since the 1930s, the Gallup Poll has asked Americans if they would support a woman for president. As late as 1958, a majority of voters said they would not do so. But the trend toward acceptance of woman (and minority) candidates has steadily grown since then. Now more than 90 percent of Americans say they would consider voting for a qualified woman. Reality bears out the polling numbers as the total of female governors, senators, representatives and state legislators sets a record every two years.
So, if the nation is ready for a woman president, will Clinton be the one?
What follows is obviously an educated guess -- at best. It is highly speculative as to how Clinton will perform under pressure and how voters will react to her. We cannot accurately forecast what the political climate will be for the next five or 10 years. Will the issues favor the Republicans, the Democrats or a third party? No one knows for sure.
In the past, when a president left office after two terms, like in 1960 or 2000, a close election often followed. It's reasonable to suppose this will be the case in 2008. If she runs, Clinton will face two contests in 2008: a race for the Democratic nomination and the general election in November.
As a competitor for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton would be quite impressive. She has nearly 100 percent name recognition, the ability to raise plenty of money and an experienced crew of consultants. Clinton also has the most valuable asset for an intra-party fight: a loyal base. She can expect to draw heavy support from white working women (about 30 percent of Democratic voters), blacks (roughly 25 percent) and white liberal men (10 percent). Throw in some Hispanic/labor support (another 10 percent) and she becomes the strong early favorite. About the only rival who could hope to start out evenly with her would be Al Gore -- and he may have retired.
While the Democratic nomination seems well within Clinton's reach, the general election would almost certainly be a much tougher race. Here's what to watch for.
Would the various Clinton scandals -- Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater, the White House Travel Office controversy, her legal maneuverings and stock dealings back in Arkansas -- sink her right off the bat? Perhaps, but the only sure way to find out is the ultimate test of a campaign. Let's assume that they would cut her potential for attracting "crossover" votes from Republican women. But they wouldn't necessarily be fatal with the crucial bloc of independent voters.
As a general election candidate Hillary Clinton could use three models: that of John F. Kennedy in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and her husband in 1992. All three were political pioneers: Kennedy the first "ethnic" president, Reagan the first ideological conservative from the West and Bill Clinton the first president of the "Baby Boom" generation.
The Kennedy comparison arises because he was also seeking to break new ground as the first Catholic president. Kennedy first attracted national attention in 1952 when he was one of the few new Democratic senators outside the South to overcome the Dwight Eisenhower landslide. The basis of his pitch to party leaders in 1960 was that he could pull back Catholic Democrats who had defected to Ike. This theory turned out to be true: Kennedy received nearly 80 percent of the Catholic vote according to the Gallup Poll and with the help of his Texas running mate, Lyndon Johnson, held the South in a very narrow victory.
But the JFK-Hillary parallel doesn't quite hold: Kennedy ran well ahead of the Democratic ticket in 1952. By contrast, exit polls and county analysis show that Clinton ran behind Gore in New York among virtually every ethnic group, among both men and women and in most urban areas.
Gore lost the Electoral College majority in 2000 because the Monica scandals and the Democrats' liberalism on cultural issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control offended traditionally Democratic voters in the Southern and Border states. Since Clinton ran behind the national Democratic ticket in one of the most liberal states, she would probably have a tough time competing in the most conservative Midwest and Southern states given her perceived social liberalism. (It's hard to think of a single state lost by Gore that Clinton would likely carry). In order to secure an Electoral College majority, Hillary would have to carry at least two smaller Bush states like West Virginia and Arkansas or one large one like Florida or Ohio. Either is possible, but neither is likely under normal circumstances.
Joshua Micah Marshall in slate.com compared Clinton to another Kennedy: "If anything, Hillary Clinton is the probable successor to Teddy Kennedy, a talented legislator who is beloved among his party faithful, but whose politics and personal baggage barred him permanently from higher office."
The next model would be Ronald Reagan. He had been rejected twice before by Republican conventions, losing to Richard Nixon in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976, mainly because the party Establishment feared that he was too conservative to be electable.
But Reagan won 48 percent of the votes against Ford and that gave him a huge base to start with in 1980. As Mark Shields wrote, "a big primary field and a lousy economy made Ronald Reagan look very formidable."
The man who couldn't get nominated in 1976 won 44 states against President Carter four years later. Reagan didn't change his ideas so much as the country moved his way. Theodore White noted in his last campaign book, the issues of 1980 -- inflation, high taxes, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- created immense national anger that Republicans took advantage of. It was a classic "throw the bums out" mood that led to the Reagan landslide and the Republican capture of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1952.
For Hillary Clinton to follow the Reagan model -- i.e. using a strong base to gain the nomination and then win in November by virtue of being the main alternative -- Bush's second term would have to end in failure. There are any number of scenarios that could create such circumstances: the Middle East could fall apart and the Bush administration could get blamed for it. The stock market could crash and the unemployment rate could hit 20 percent. To be perfectly ridiculous, Bush could have an affair with Monica. Under this theory, Clinton would just sit back and wait for the opportunity.
The most obvious opportunity for a second Clinton presidency would be to win on a split vote as Bill Clinton did in 1992. Michael Dukakis, the much-maligned 1988 Democratic nominee actually won a higher percentage of the national popular vote than Bill Clinton did in 1992 (46 percent to 43 percent). The difference was that billionaire independent Ross Perot took roughly twice as many Republican votes as Democratic ones. (For example, Perot polled 24 percent in famously conservative Orange County and 9 percent in liberal San Francisco). With Perot winning 19 percent of the popular vote, the most for an independent since World War II, Bill Clinton needed barely more than 40 percent to win. Almost any Democrat would have won in the 1992 scenario, including Ted Kennedy or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
So, the very early tentative conclusion is that Hillary Clinton would have a tough time winning a two-way race in a neutral political climate like 2000. She's not likely to be another JFK: someone who pulls back wayward Democrats with a strong personal appeal.
But in a three-way race with a right-leaning independent like Perot or Pat Buchanan, she could come through with a small (less than 45 percent) plurality. And if the economy or foreign policy situation deteriorates severely enough to create a massive national mood for change, Hillary Clinton could ride that wave -- as Reagan did in 1980 -- all the way to the White House. Her best chance to win would be to emulate her husband, the 1980 Reagan strategy or some combination thereof.
Will it happen? Who knows? But to quote Scammon and Wattenberg again, "The rule is 'expect the unexpected.'"
(Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California.)