By David M. Shribman
Executive Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Don't be spooked by the dateline. Nothing going on here. Presidential race hasn't started. No cause for worry about debates, delegate counts, stump speeches. Not for a long time, maybe a very long time. Read on without peril.
Because this is a column about why the Democratic campaign, and thus maybe the Republican campaign, too, may be delayed indefinitely, why the person at the center of the speculation has no incentive to budge one inch, and why your fatigue with politics may perfectly match her strategic imperatives.
The politician we are speaking of is Hillary Rodham Clinton, late the secretary of state, before that the senator from New York. The political commentariat, including this foot soldier in those bedraggled and discredited ranks, has noted that she is in the unusual position of freezing the race. None of the Democrats will move -- not Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., not even this season's hugababy, Martin O'Malley, still so little known that it's bad manners to the reader not to append his title, governor of Maryland -- until she does.
This is not an everyday phenomenon. Consider the most formidable political figures of modern times: No other potential contender waited to gauge Sen. John F. Kennedy's intentions for 1960. Not a soul on Earth put his life on hold to see if Gov. Bill Clinton would run in 1988, when he didn't, or in 1992, when he did. Neither of the George Bushes scared anyone else out of the race in 1988 or 2000 or kept multitudes waiting for a decision from Kennebunkport. Jimmy Carter? You must be kidding. One of the reasons he carried his own grip was because he didn't have any supporters to do so.
The Clinton position in this race is without precedent. Andrew Jackson was the presumptive 1828 Democratic nominee from the start -- so much so that the party didn't even hold a nominating caucus. But he had been the clear winner in both the popular and Electoral College vote in 1824, only to lose the presidency in the "corrupt bargain" that took John Quincy Adams to the White House in the only election ever decided in the House of Representatives. Nothing could deny Jackson the nomination four years later.
Even Grover Cleveland, who won the presidency in 1884, and then lost it in 1888, wasn't in as commanding a position as Clinton when he sought (and won) another term in 1892. His views on the free coinage of silver, the signature issue of the party and the time, were out of sync with many Democrats, and he had the enmity of the Tammany forces in his own state. He won re-nomination on the first ballot by only a handful of delegates in a raucous, fractured convention.
The only political figure since the Civil War to have anything remotely resembling the Clinton effect was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as victorious general in Europe could have had the presidential nomination of the Republican Party and very likely the Democratic Party in 1948, and who would have breezed to the nomination of either party four years later.
So alluring a candidate was he that President Harry Truman suggested he would stand down in 1948 if Eisenhower wanted to run as a Democrat. As late as July 5, 1948, just 120 days before the election, Eisenhower issued this statement: "I will not, at this time, identify myself with any political party and could not accept nomination for any public office or participate in a partisan political contest."
Naturally, politicos being politicos, the phrase "at this time" attracted inordinate attention and, according to Jean Edward Smith in the most recent Eisenhower biography, "few doubted that the (Democratic) nomination would have been his if he wanted it."
But even in 1948 and 1952, Eisenhower's indecision, whether real or calculated, didn't make as much of a difference as Clinton's refusal, whether real or calculated, to make an early decision. Those races went on anyway.
Eventually Eisenhower declared himself a Republican and powered past Sen. Robert Taft to win the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. But he didn't stop Taft from running hard -- far from it, for the Ohio senator won several important primaries, including Wisconsin and Illinois, and then engaged in a bitter convention battle that featured a now-forgotten contretemps over "stolen delegates."
Today, we know Clinton's party affiliation but we do not know her political intentions. And until we do, there is no campaign.
But it is more than that. She's the favorite for the nomination -- can there breathe a soul who does not know who she is and what she has done? -- and so dominating a figure out of power, out of the public eye and out of the nastiness of today's politics, that she has no incentive whatsoever to weaken her position by dipping back in.
How long could this last? As long as she wants it to, and she very likely will want it to last a very long time.
Why? The longer it lasts, the less time her putative opponents have to build organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire, still the indispensable first two steps toward a presidential nomination, and the less money the other potential candidates will have collected as the first voting nears.
But perhaps most important, the longer it lasts, the less opportunity for O'Malley and a half dozen others will have to build support and even name recognition.
"She's the most qualified candidate in the field and perhaps in a long time," former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an interview, comparing the depth of Clinton's preparation to that of George H.W. Bush, who had served in the House, as director of the CIA, as a diplomat in China and as a two-term vice president when he ran for president in 1988. "I dearly hope she runs. Here's someone immensely ready -- and she happens to be a woman."
But there's no hurry. In this case they also serve (their own purposes) who stand and wait.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.
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