Heilemann: What Hillary Wants, and Why She’s Jesse Jackson ’88

Hillary Clinton
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There’s been a lot of talk over the past few months about whether the 2008 presidential campaign just might turn out to be 1988 all over again. The comparison has been driven by the fact that Republicans plainly intend to try to cast Barack Obama as a black Mike Dukakis — as too liberal, too inexperienced, too weak, and, crucially, insufficiently patriotic to occupy the White House. But a different analogy occurred to me the other day, one perhaps less comprehensively apt but so delightfully ironic that it would be a crime not to point it out. As anyone politically sentient in 1988 will vividly recall, the endgame of the Democratic primaries that year revolved around a challenger seen by his fans as a historic figure and his foes as a potential party-wrecker, and what concessions he might insist upon in order to fade quietly into the background. The inescapable question of the hour was, “What does Jesse Jackson want?”

Hillary Clinton, of course, is no Jesse Jackson (but neither, pace Bill Clinton’s comments on the eve of the South Carolina primary, is Obama). But the question posed by her behavior in the home stretch of this year’s nominating contest is precisely the same: “What does Hillary want?”

Whenever this query is put to me — which only takes place, oh, on the order of 100 times a day — my response is simple: She wants to be president. Duh. And if it ain’t gonna happen this year, then her central objective is to make it as likely as possible in 2012. As I’ve written many times, Hillary believes with every fiber of her being that Obama is going to lose this year. (And so does her husband.) So her aim is to put herself in the best position possible to stand up on November 5 and say, if perhaps a tad more subtly than this, “I told you so.”

From these core facts — and based on everything my reporting these past few months tells me, facts is what they are — flow plausible answers to a raft of more granular questions about Clinton’s motives and what she plans to do in the days ahead. For the purposes of brevity, let’s stick to the top five.

1. Is she going to quit sometime soon or fight on to the convention?
The former. Indeed, my guess is that she might very well be out of the race by the end of next week. For Hillary to be the Democratic nominee in 2012, she must limit the extent to which she’s seen as having caused Obama’s (in her mind, inevitable) loss this fall. And setting off on a scorched-earth march to Denver runs in diametric opposition to that goal. True, she keeps saying that she’s going all the way; true, she continues to press for the seating in full of the Florida and Michigan delegations. But Clinton has other things she might want from Obama, from a prominent speaking slot in Denver to help paying off her campaign debt. The more delegates she has in the end, the stronger her bargaining position.

2. Does she want to be offered the VP slot?
No, she does not. If it’s offered, she has to take it, because turning it down would be a signal to her supporters that she doesn’t support Obama (see above). And if she’s on the ticket and Obama goes down (again, as she’s convinced he will), she is then complicit in the loss, and her prospects in 2012 are damaged. Does Hillary want be the next John Edwards? The question answers itself.

3. So what’s with all the leaks that Bill wants her on the ticket?
He probably does. The idea of Hillary as veep must sound like a sweet deal to him: It would be history-making, it would cement the Clintons’ status as one of America’s great political dynasties, and in the second-fiddle job his wife would pose no danger of overshadowing him. But contrary to the notion that the Clintons are always in perfect sync on matters political — that they scheme together, choose a path to follow, then go charging down it together — there are many cases where their thinking diverges. And this is one of them.

4. Will she work hard for Obama or undermine him in the fall?
Implicit in all this analysis is that Hillary Clinton is a cold-eyed rationalist, and despite the occasional shard of evidence to the contrary, this is true. She’s aware that even as she’s become a much larger figure in the course of this race in one segment of the party, her reputation has taken a beating in another. She thinks it’s unfair, but she knows it’s the reality, and also that whether Obama wins or loses, it’s difficult to imagine a promising future for herself without repairing her standing among those who regard her poorly. I suspect there won’t be many louder Obama cheerleaders this autumn — or more insincere ones.

5. If Obama wins, what will she do next?
One rumor going around New York is that she’ll run for governor — an eventuality only marginally more likely than my pursuing that office. HRC cares not a whit about state government. She loves Washington, thinks of it as home, and of Albany as hell (smart gal!). Consider further that becoming governor would require taking on the incumbent, David Paterson, who has indicated no intention to be a temporary fill-in. Hillary challenging another African-American in a Democratic primary? Fat chance.

No, in all likelihood, Clinton will head back to the Senate and take her place as arguably the most powerful member of that body. There are those who say the hard feelings of this race will cripple her with her colleagues. What a crock. Having campaigned in all 50 states and won millions of votes in the process, Clinton will surely be the most sought-after fund-raiser in all of Democratic politics besides the putative President Obama. She will take the lead in the upper chamber on passing health-care reform, which will not only give her a shot at a place in history but a chance to make up for epic failure back in 1993–94. And, with the incumbent Obama sure to be the standard-bearer in 2012, she will set her sights on 2016, when, after all, she’ll be just 68 — three years younger than John McCain is now, for anyone who happens to be counting. —John Heilemann

Related: Clinton Supporters, Women at Large Not Coming Around to Obama

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.