Brian Birdnow

The turbulent waters of American politics grew more treacherous last week as former President Bill Clinton plunged, uninvited into the 2012 campaign unleashing a number of rhetorical zingers, defending Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s private sector career and expressing an opinion that the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended in order to ward off a recession that Clinton sees looming just over the horizon. Those comments were not particularly noteworthy, except for the fact that they stand in direct opposition to the re-election strategy of the Obama campaign, which is to paint Romney as an agent of heartless capitalism, and to charge that the Bush tax cuts somehow gave us the Obama economy. What is noteworthy about these remarks is the simple fact that President Obama is Mrs. Bill Clinton’s boss, and the titular head of the Democratic Party.

Many observers are now trying to make sense of Bill Clinton’s remarks, or at least are trying to excuse them. Veteran Clinton watchers old enough to remember the 1992 campaign, and the subsequently comical Administrations note that the ex-President had a lamentable tendency to stray off message, when not reading from a prepared script. Certain journalists merely dismissed this as another indication of Clinton’s undisciplined mind and personality. Still others are suggesting that this is Clinton payback, evening the score for the “events” of 2007-08. Each of the preceding scenarios contains a kernel of plausibility, but each of them ignores the plain truth: Bill Clinton is kicking off the “Hillary Clinton For President” campaign, the 2016 edition. The latest version of the permanent Hillary presidential campaign is ramping up right now, as Mrs. Clinton and her celebrated husband prepare to abandon the badly listing S.S. Obama.

The mainstream media may think otherwise, but a cursory examination of history and the facts bear out the truth of this assertion. The Clinton family lives politics to the exclusion of all other pursuits. No one can credibly deny that Hillary’s run for the Senate in 2000 served as the first step in the next Clinton presidential campaign. The calculations were upset, somewhat, in 2001 when the country understandably rallied around the incumbent after the dreadful events of September 11th. High-level Democrats today concede that the Clintons did little to assist the John Kerry campaign in 2004. The former first couple secretly hoped for a Bush re-election, thinking that this would clear the decks for a Clinton restoration in 2008. The Clinton camp naturally denies this, but Senator Kerry clearly dislikes the Clintons and blames them for helping to sabotage his 2004 campaign. (Kerry’s smoldering resentment reignited when he lost out as Secretary of State to Hillary, as well!)

In a sense we see the same pattern repeating itself today, although some of the variables do not match up perfectly. Consider the facts, as we now know them. Bill Clinton has stated that the nation is sinking into recession, which is why he believes that the Bush tax cuts should be extended, at least temporarily. Politically speaking, a double-dip recession will ruin anyone associated with it, and the Clintons are heading for the hills. It matters not whether Obama survives the November election, or Romney sweeps into Washington. A 1937-style second recession will produce a backlash dragging under all who appear to have helped create the problem, regardless of Party affiliation.

If Mitt Romney wins in November he will spend the majority of his term cleaning up the mess left by Obama. A mild recession will make the job harder, and a deep recession will make it nearly impossible. Romney and the GOP will earn most of the blame for a recession, because they will be the incumbents. For a historical precedent the reader need only look back to 2000. That last year of the Clinton Administration, the stock market tanked with the bursting of the tech-bubble, gasoline prices soared, and people saw their IRA and 401-K values tumble. The economy officially went into recession in early February of 2001, when the Clintons were safely out of the White House, and W. was left to try to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Journalists and political scientists have argued that the Clintons would be better served by an Obama re-election victory, which would open the field for 2016. The basic idea here is that it remains supremely difficult to defeat an incumbent president, and that Hillary, by default, would emerge as the heir apparent when the Presidency is vacant in four years. This political science theorem may be true, and this is all the more reason why Hillary will jump ship on the administration sooner rather than later.

If Obama should pull out a victory he will still have to deal with an economy falling, once again, into recession. Obama’s economic legacy will shape up as a deep recession in 2009-10, an anemic recovery in 2011, and another recession beginning in 2012. Hillary will bear the weight of her association with a failed Administration. The new Clinton war plan is fairly clear. Hillary will depart the Obama team as soon as politically possible. She will sit on the sidelines throughout the presumably tough times just ahead. If Obama wins re-election in November, Hillary can still run in 2016 without too much Obama baggage weighing her down. If Romney wins she can run against him as a new face offering a fresh start in 2016, regardless of the fact that she is as fresh as three-day old fish. She may turn the conventional wisdom of the political scientists upside down and run better against a President Romney as a private citizen, rather than running as the Secretary of State of a failed Administration.

Friday, June 8th, there were reports that Bill Clinton is now apologizing to the Grand Pooh-Bahs of the Democratic Party for his slip-of-tongue. His defenders are writing this off as another unfortunate public Clinton gaffe…such as discussing his underwear with teenage girls on national television in 1994. This would be a misreading of the current situation. Bill Clinton knows exactly what he is saying, and by extension, doing. His goal does not vary, and he has kept his eyes on the prize. The nation should brace itself for the “Hillary Clinton For President”, circa 2016. The campaign is beginning in earnest.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.