Speculation about Hillary Clinton’s continued presidential ambitions is rife. Husband Bill is back on the campaign trail, offering thanks to those who backed her in 2008 – and laying the foundations for anoth try in 2016.Fear and loathing in the American body politic is not confined to the anti-tax Tea Party. Across the spectrum of the Democratic party, every hue is feeling it too.
With a fortnight to go to the midterms, moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats are in big trouble. The party’s left-wing “Yellow Dogs” are up in arms about being taken for granted by the White House “hippy bashers”. Even black bloggers are warning President Barack Obama.
Gone was the red-faced, finger-wagging Bill who I saw in South Carolina in early 2008, when he exploded with anger at being accused of racism by Obama allies as the Democratic nomination slipped from his wife Hillary’s grasp. Instead, Española saw Chilled Bill, a man vindicated by events and who knows he was right to warn of Obama’s shortcomings.
The event, for which nearly 4,000 people crammed into the town square, was for Diane Denish, the Democratic candidate for governor. Behind in the polls, she had supported Hillary against Obama in 2008 and Bill was back to repay the debt.
Bill, hoarse-voiced but with a glint in his eye, explained that this was his 80th event. He made crystal clear just who he was representing on the campaign trail – and it wasn’t Obama. “I planned to do about one stop for everybody that helped Hillary run for president because she’s one of only two members of the president’s cabinet who cannot participate in politics,” he said.
As Secretary of State, he reminded people, is not permitted to campaign. “Then I got out here and started stirring around and realised that a lot of people were mad and even more confused and I didn’t want it on my conscience so I just loaded up and started strolling around.”
The Clintons are undoubtedly an unusual couple. Bill’s past indiscretions are legendary and their jobs – he is now a globe-trotting philanthropist – mean that these days they see each other less often than the average American goes to the dentist.
Yet they remain together (who would have thought the Gore marriage would unravel first?) and are a remarkable political tag team.
Bill’s energetic reappearance on the campaign trail comes just as rumours, some of them eagerly fuelled by the Clinton camp, swirl that Hillary might replace the hapless Joe Biden as Obama’s vice-presidential running mate in 2012 or even challenge the President for the Democratic nomination if his popularity continues to slide.
Neither option makes much sense for Hillary, whose performance as Secretary of State, in which she has been supportive of the US military and sought to stiffen Obama’s spine in Afghanistan, has won admirers even on the Right.
Becoming vice-president would tie her to Obama on domestic policy. Through political good fortune (not to mention calculation), she has been out of that arena for the past two years, meaning that there are no Clinton fingerprints on unpopular health care, bail-out or stimulus legislation.
Hillary has been loyal to Obama – it would have been politically foolish to appear otherwise – but her discrete job means she can remain distant from most of what he does.
It just so happens that Hillary will be out of town on November 2nd, when Democrats expect a pummeling at the polls. She’ll be on the other side of the globe, in fact, on a tour including stops in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
The message is unmistakable: “Nothing to do with me!” Challenging Obama in 2012, even if he is in dire straits, would be incredibly risky. To seek to oust the first black president would split the Democrats in two and almost guarantee a Republican victory even if Hillary won the nomination. It’s a non-starter.
But 2016 is different. No one takes her denials of wanting to run again at face value and aides are quietly putting it about that she still has her eyes on the White House. Her former chief strategist Mark Penn recently polled her popularity compared to Obama’s.
Bill’s stump speeches are helping lay the foundations of a 2016 campaign. His presence on the campaign trail, often in parts of the country where Obama is not so popular, reinforces the 2008 argument that the Clintons (in terms of power politics, it is fruitless to view them separately) can reach places Obama cannot.
It also shows that the wounds of the epic Obama-Clinton battle of 2008 have not healed. Conspicuous by his absence from Española was Bill Richardson, the current New Mexico governor, who was publicly branded a “Judas” by James Carville, the Clinton consigliere, for endorsing Obama. Richardson was never even mentioned by Denish or the former President.
After trying something new and shiny in the person of Obama and being disappointed, many Democrats are now indulging in Clinton nostalgia. “We Miss the Thrill of Bill” read one prominent sign in Española.
“He let me hug him!” exclaimed Loyda Martinez, 57, after the event. “And he hugged me back! A lot of these politicians, you can barely touch their hands. Bill has a way of connecting with the ordinary person that Obama does not.” Bill’s past foibles are viewed as endearing. “He like the ladies!” laughed one man as Bill posed for pictures beside a platinum blonde.
I chatted to Bill Clinton briefly as he worked the rope line. Having garnered some unwelcome headlines in 2008, he was sticking very firmly to the script this time.
“She’s already answered that,” he said, when I asked him if there really was any chance she might replace Biden in 2012. He turned and added: “I’ll tell you what, she likes being Secretary of State and she’s doing a great job.”
So might she run in 2016? The Big Dog of the Democratic party paused, appeared to be about to hold forth and then seemed to hold himself in check. “She speaks for herself on these things,” he said, flashing me a big grin.