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The Once and Future President Clinton

It’s not as crazy as it seems.

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A speech given by Hillary Rodham Clinton just four days after George W. Bush’s second inauguration is never just a speech. On January 24, in an address notable for its elegant Clintonian geometry, Hillary told a room full of family-planning advocates that although she remained wholly committed to the freedom to choose, she also thought it was important for the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements to find common ground. The following day, her address got front-page coverage in the New York Times, and Harold Ickes, with characteristic eloquence, showed up in a Washington, D.C., restaurant to crow about it.

“I’m sorry, but when push comes to fucking shove—not to turn a pun—my belief is that life begins at conception,” he says, as he rips the tab of his tea bag into tiny little shreds. “And I think Hillary understands how hot-button this issue is for Democrats.”

For a man who was fired by the Clinton administration and then rewarded with 32 subpoenas for his service, Ickes remains surprisingly close to the former First Family. As treasurer of her reelection committee, he speaks regularly with Hillary, and during the 2004 presidential campaign, when he ran two 527 organizations devoted to defeating George W. Bush, he spoke to Bill roughly every other day. “The issue of choice is deeply, deeply felt,” he continues. “We progressives just can’t dismiss people who feel to the contrary. This is a helpful dialogue Hillary’s opened up.”

He asks the waitress for more hot water. He rips the tab of his tea bag into even smaller chads. Then he adds a richer layer to this story. Hillary, as it turns out, isn’t the only Clinton who believes the Democratic Party should soften its rhetoric on abortion. “During the presidential campaign,” he says, “Bill Clinton’s main plaint was that we Democrats, primarily Kerry, were ignoring the issues of abortion, guns, and gay marriage to our peril. He used to say, ‘Abortions went down during my presidency. They went up after Bush II. We need to talk about that’—basically what Hillary said in her speech today.”

So was the former president framing Hillary’s message? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “They’re very, very close, not just personally but politically. He’s not her only touchstone. But he’s very much a touchstone.”

He signals the waitress for the check.

“Her speech yesterday was a big speech,” he concludes. “It’s a positioning speech.” For president?

“She is the elephant in the living room.”
—Joe Biden, Senator (D)

“You can certainly argue that,” he says. “I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you.”

Most Democrats agree that Bill Clinton was the best thing to happen to their party in a generation. His wife may now be the best thing to happen to the next. How on earth did this happen? How did the reluctant cookie-baker, the socializer of health care, and the theorizer of a right-wing conspiracy become the presumptive nominee for the party in 2008?

“Well, unless someone can push you off the stage, you’re on the stage,” says John Breaux, the former Louisiana senator and confidant of Bill Clinton’s. “No one has pushed her off. Is anyone even capable? That’s the question.”

What isn’t the question is whether Hillary will run. In Washington, this fact is utterly taken for granted. Rather, the question is, who’ll have the nerve to wrestle the nomination away from her? At the dedication of the Clinton library last November, which the press corps framed as a debutante ball for Hillary, Wesley Clark openly contemplated another run; this January, as I roamed the halls of the Senate, I heard plenty of other names being tossed about, some from the prospective candidates themselves. “Look, I may run against her for the nomination,” said Joseph Biden, the Senate Democrat who’s become a Daily Show favorite for his sense of humor and candor (and who already made a stab at the 1988 primaries, before he was caught plagiarizing from a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock).

Really? I asked. Seriously?

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll do it, but I’m looking at it seriously. And she is, you know, the elephant in the living room. She’s the big deal.”

It’s hard to imagine how spectacularly weird a Hillary candidacy would be. It raises the prospect of Bill Clinton, at one point the most humiliated man in America, being back in the White House—but this time, it’d be Hillary in the Oval Office late at night, ordering pizza. It raises the prospect of alternating political dynasties, one composed of husband and wife, the other of father and son.

Unlike Bush, though, who never seemed to wrestle with his political eligibility—that’s the marvelous thing about family wealth, how it lends the illusion you’ve earned your privileges—Hillary would be dogged by the same questions that dogged a whole generation of feminists about power and how it’s acquired. Sure, her candidacy would be the ultimate suffragette triumph, but it’d also send a complicated message: So this is how we get to the White House? On a flagstone path laid by our husbands? And what would Bill be, if she won? Co-president? Karl Rove? Just as her husband promised to end welfare as we knew it, Hillary, by definition, would have to end the office of the First Lady as we know it. Unless Bill were content to spend the next four years selecting china patterns.


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