PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — There she is on the cover of Time magazine. And look, on that bizarre cover of The New York Times Magazine, there she is again. She’s everywhere, and the story line is pretty much the same: Hillary Clinton is a pretty good bet to be the Democratic presidential nominee. If she runs.
That’s a big “if,” but it’s hard to imagine that a woman who has been one of the most prominent members of her generation since her fabled college commencement address — a woman who has been secretary of state, senator from an important political state and first lady — will decline a presidential campaign and a chance to grab the brass ring of history merely because she’s weary of travel, or that she will decline a chance to preside over the Rose Garden because she wants to cultivate her own garden in Chappaqua.
A campaign almost certainly will be even more irresistible to her because women still haven’t won their share of power in American politics. It is not only that the country never has elected a female president; it’s also that even today only a fifth of the Senate is female, and that only 30 women in history have entered the chamber through election.
But in the end — indeed, in the beginning — Clinton’s gender is very likely not going to be a principal, or even an incidental, factor in the 2016 presidential race, and not just because Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel have preceded her with strong performances as national leaders.
The real reason has two parts and has nothing to do with Clinton’s being a woman and everything to do with her credentials and background.
First, political figures from New York such as Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland and Franklin Delano Roosevelt almost always are natural candidates for president, even if, like Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, they do not prevail or, like Mario Cuomo, they decline to run.
Second, throughout our history the office of secretary of state has been a natural stepping-stone for the White House. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan all were secretaries of state before they became president, and a number of other secretaries of state, including Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass and Alexander Haig Jr., have run for president.
Of all those luminaries, only Van Buren and Clinton claim both of these launching pads before entering a presidential campaign. (Charles Evans Hughes was the GOP presidential nominee exactly a century before Clinton’s putative campaign, but the former governor of New York became secretary of state after his presidential campaign, not before.)
One thing is almost certainly not a factor: Clinton would be the third graduate of the Yale Law School to become president, but the first graduate of Wellesley College. This may be a factor, however: She has not driven a car in 18 years — since before some 2016 voters were born. This does not underline her populist credentials.
Already some Democrats worry the Clinton rush threatens to short-circuit the nomination process in favor of dynastic succession, which seems incongruous in a political party that considers itself the representative of the common people. At the same time, the phrase “Clinton fatigue” is in the air again.
Each presidential race is different — trying to graft precedents or even insights from earlier presidential campaigns is risky business, no matter how many times this typist has attempted it — but one rule does seem to apply: Presidential nominations aren’t inevitable. For proof, visit the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College in chilly Lewiston, Maine, where the papers of the 38th president of the United States do not reside.
A codicil to that iron law: Sometimes presidential candidates who seem inevitable nominees still have a hard time winning the nomination.
The best recent example comes from the 1984 campaign of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who assembled perhaps the most impressive array of endorsements in modern history only to lose the primary in New Hampshire. “I thought I might be going through the Muskie thing again,” says James Johnson, a veteran of the Muskie campaign who ran the Mondale campaign. “We shifted from winning easily to grinding delegates on the last day.”
Even so, the friends of Clinton are mighty busy — and mighty visible, so much so that Republicans here in New Hampshire already have concluded that, as one operative put it pointedly last week, “subtlety is not in their playbook.”
Nor in their tactical operations. This winter the “super PAC” Priorities USA, a vital part of the Obama political operation, began to mobilize on behalf of the woman whose candidacy it crushed eight years ago. Meanwhile, groups around the country — and especially in Iowa, site of the first caucuses, and here in New Hampshire, site of the first primary, usually six days later — already are reaching out to activists and supporters.
Last month the Iowa affiliate of the Ready for Hillary organization assembled in Des Moines, and in the crowd were state party chairman Scott Brennan and veteran organizers such as Teresa Vilmain.
The New Hampshire affiliate of Ready for Hillary met shortly before the holidays with Craig Smith, a White House political director in the Clinton administration.
“We’re not the campaign and we’re not going to be the campaign, but we’re building lists and making contacts,” says Terry Shumaker, co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns here and a major figure in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign. “There’s an amazing amount of pent-up demand — to do something, to help her decide to run, to provide an outlet for people who are looking ahead to 2016.”
Clinton lost the 2008 Iowa caucuses to Obama, but staged a comeback here to win the New Hampshire primary — and she capped it off with perhaps her greatest political speech. “Over the last week,” she said, “I listened to you and, in the process, I found my own voice.”
But now, about two years before the next New Hampshire primary, political professionals are waiting to hear her voice. In the meantime, here is my maxim for our time: It can’t be over if it hasn’t even begun.
North Shore native David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.