Does Hillary Owe It to Democrats to Run?

Karl Rove’s attacks on Clinton’s health divert attention from what promises to be a fascinating election, no matter who decides to enter the fray.

Karl Rove, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, prepares to lead a panel discussion at The 4% Project Conference on April 12, 2011 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. The economic conference, sponsored by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, intends to increase awareness of public policies and private business strategies that increase opportunity and prosperity for Americans. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 19, 2014, 5:09 p.m.

Some people in­volved in polit­ics evoke the strongest of emo­tions. Surely, Hil­lary Clin­ton is one of those people. In the cat­egory of those who have nev­er sought elect­ive of­fice them­selves, Karl Rove would cer­tainly be on the list as well. Their lines in­ter­sec­ted a week ago with a New York Post re­port that at a con­fer­ence, Rove made ref­er­ence to the much-pub­li­cized fall and head in­jury that the then-sec­ret­ary of State ex­per­i­enced dur­ing her fi­nal months in that post. This in­cid­ent res­ul­ted in a three-day hos­pit­al­iz­a­tion, dur­ing which Clin­ton was un­der ob­ser­va­tion. Rove re­portedly asked, “Thirty days in the hos­pit­al?” con­tinu­ing, “And when she re­appears, she’s wear­ing glasses that are only for people who have had trau­mat­ic brain in­jury? We need to know what’s up with that.” This set off a firestorm of news stor­ies sug­gest­ing that Rove was im­ply­ing Clin­ton had suffered some kind of per­man­ent brain dam­age as a res­ult of her fall. Rove cla­ri­fied his re­marks this past week­end on Fox News Sunday. “I’m not ques­tion­ing her health,” he said. “What I’m ques­tion­ing is wheth­er or not it’s a done deal that she’s run­ning. And she would not be hu­man if she did not take this in­to con­sid­er­a­tion.”

If Rove was only mak­ing the point that Clin­ton — who will turn 69 two weeks be­fore the 2016 gen­er­al elec­tion — might not run, there were cer­tainly less in­flam­mat­ory ways of rais­ing that is­sue. I sus­pect that Rove knew pre­cisely what he was say­ing and that he wanted to get that dis­cus­sion go­ing with a rhet­or­ic­al “high and in­side” pitch, the kind we see too much of in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. But to his second, cla­ri­fied point, this column has noted that while Clin­ton’s age will be pre­cisely the same as Ron­ald Re­agan’s when he was first elec­ted pres­id­ent, people in their late 60s do not make nine-year com­mit­ments lightly. In my pre­vi­ous piece, I was not ar­guing that she wouldn’t run (in fact, I stated that there was per­haps a 70 per­cent chance that she would), but rather that there was a chance she might not feel up to it. People quite close to Clin­ton have sug­ges­ted that she may simply de­cide not to run; some news re­ports have said that oth­ers in her circle would rather she didn’t.

Nobody has to ex­plain to Hil­lary Clin­ton how ar­du­ous run­ning for pres­id­ent is; she has seen it up close and per­son­al. She un­der­stands the de­mands and will either feel ready, will­ing, and able to run, or she’ll de­cide she would like to slow down and have a life, en­joy be­ing a grand­moth­er and spend­ing time out­side the grind of polit­ic­al life. If her heart is in it, she should run; if her heart isn’t in it, run­ning would be a hor­rible mis­take.

The ques­tion of wheth­er Clin­ton runs cer­tainly evokes strong emo­tions in many people. At a din­ner re­cently, a friend — one with clear Demo­crat­ic sym­path­ies — ar­gued to me that if Clin­ton de­clined to run for pres­id­ent in 2016, the Demo­crat­ic Party would have a right to feel angry with her, sug­gest­ing that she had an ob­lig­a­tion to run. My view is some­what dif­fer­ent: She is her own hu­man be­ing, she has the right to make her own ca­reer choices, and if she de­cides not to run, the Demo­crat­ic Party should simply thank her for past ser­vice and move on and find someone else. Clin­ton doesn’t owe any­thing to any­one else in this situ­ation, oth­er than mak­ing the right de­cision for her­self. Oth­er Demo­crats simply feel that as someone who ob­vi­ously is among the most am­bi­tious around, she would be simply in­cap­able of de­cid­ing not to run.

Each side has strong views: Some Re­pub­lic­ans fear she could be un­beat­able, while some on the Demo­crat­ic side have a fear of the un­known. If Clin­ton de­cides not to enter the con­test, the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion would prob­ably re­semble a Cecil B. De­Mille pro­duc­tion, with a cast of thou­sands, in which no one would have any idea who would emerge as the party’s stand­ard-bear­er. For some reas­on, that seems really scary to some Demo­crats. Per­son­ally, I think that wheth­er Clin­ton runs or not, 2016 will be a very ex­cit­ing — prob­ably fas­cin­at­ing — race. The next pres­id­en­tial con­test is just a very dif­fer­ent race with her versus without her; the lat­ter scen­ario would most likely res­ult in the bat­on be­ing passed to a very dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al gen­er­a­tion. How could that not be ex­cit­ing?

The ques­tion of wheth­er Jeb Bush runs on the GOP side isn’t the same at all, even though he cer­tainly rep­res­ents a link to the past. The known and the­or­et­ic­al al­tern­at­ives—save Mike Hucka­bee, Rick Perry, and Rick San­tor­um—would be that of new gen­er­a­tion, re­l­at­ively new polit­ic­al faces, more of the fu­ture. Should Bush run, he would likely set up a battle for the heart and soul of the GOP. The fact that cur­rent polls show him roughly tied with Hucka­bee and Sen. Rand Paul un­der­scores how much the Re­pub­lic­an Party has changed. Jeb Bush would rep­res­ent the old Re­pub­lic­an Party, the lin­ear des­cend­ent of Pres­id­ents Eis­en­hower, Nix­on, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush (I am avoid­ing Pres­id­ent Re­agan, but that could be ar­gued either way), along with Bob Dole. Most of the al­tern­at­ives to Bush are vari­ations on the new theme of the GOP, far less con­ven­tion­al choices, al­though ar­gu­ably some of the gov­ernors who are look­ing at run­ning could le­git­im­ately fall in­to either cat­egory.

We should re­con­cile ourselves to an­oth­er two years of back-and-forth gren­ade-lob­bing, over­shad­ow­ing at times what is likely to be a really in­ter­est­ing cam­paign that can still go in a thou­sand dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions.

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