I write this week from New Orleans, where I am participating in the Bipartisan Policy Center's Inaugural Political Summit, organized by Tom Daschle, Howard Baker and Bob Dole and hosted by Mary Matalin and James Carville.
The conference has assembled about 20 top Democratic and Republican political strategists and operatives and has asked us to assess how we might take the poison out of partisanship (which is, admittedly, rather like asking a convention of foxes how to advance the interests of chickens). In the process, we have been asked to consider how the next presidential campaign is shaping up. It's a little early, you might think, but in fact, in less than 18 months, both parties' presidential aspirants will be organizing their primary campaigns.
The Republican primary field is obviously wide open, but it struck me that the Democratic Party's potential aspirants really are already down to two. Obviously, the president will be one of them, and if things aren't going so well for him by the spring of 2011, his only plausible challenger would be Hillary Clinton.
She made a recent obligatory denial of interest in running for president, but such denials are not taken seriously. After all, both the current president and the previous Democratic president flatly denied having any intention of running yet cheerfully turned up to take their oaths of office promptly thereafter.
Only God knows what will happen to America in the next year and a half (and he hasn't told me), but it is not implausible that by 2012, the Democratic Party will see Hillary Clinton's nomination as its best chance for keeping the White House.
Of course, if the economy comes booming back, unemployment is cut in half and there are no foreign policy disasters, President Barack Obama surely will get an unopposed nomination and probably his re-election. But if current estimates are right, that unemployment still may be close to double digits at the end of next year -- and particularly if foreign affairs go badly -- Hillary just might be the one.
It seems odd that a failed foreign policy might be the basis for a president's secretary of state to replace him on the presidential ticket, but it is beginning to set up that way.
Of course, as secretary of state, Hillary cannot plausibly be assigned any responsibility for a bad economy and high unemployment. Nor, perhaps ironically, would her fingerprints be on a stunningly unpopular health care plan that increases the national debt by trillions, increases the cost of health care premiums for the middle class and increases taxes on the middle class while also reducing the benefits to the middle class.
Nor, curiously, is she likely to be seen as responsible for the Obama administration's foreign policy. It has been reported repeatedly in major newspapers that she is one of the most marginalized secretaries of state in modern times. The White House has made little effort to disabuse the press and the public of that view. She was not even included in the president's Moscow summit. She is seen as the good soldier and team player with little voice in policy.
It isn't forgotten that foreign affairs were the major policy disputes between Clinton and Obama during the primary. She accused Obama of "being naive" about agreeing to unconditional meetings with leaders of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. She was -- and is -- a strong supporter of Israel and, during the campaign, was opposed to forcing Israel to freeze West Bank settlements unconditionally.
In April 2008, she was "deeply disturbed" by Russia's move to strengthen links to the separatist regions of Georgia -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the time, she called on then-President George W. Bush to send a senior representative to Tbilisi to "show our support." She also condemned Russia for engaging in a "pressure campaign to prevent Ukraine from seeking deeper ties with NATO."
Regarding Iran, she favored immediate economic sanctions -- last year. She threatened military force if necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. She threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation if it used nuclear weapons on Israel.
This year, as each of those issues emerged, President Obama took a different approach. He had to reverse himself on the unconditional settlement freeze. He let the Russians invade Georgia and was slow to condemn them for it. Iran is pushing the United States (and the world) into a corner on its nuclear development. Israeli/Palestinian "peace" talks are about 98 percent of the way to complete failure of administration objectives.
The worse things get in foreign affairs -- and those dark clouds are getting darker and closer -- the better Hillary Clinton's foreign policy will look compared with President Obama's. Even now, her Gallup Poll job approval rating of 62 percent beats her president's number by about 10 percent.
In the 2012 Democratic Party primary, we may once again hear Hillary's advertisement that asked Americans whom we want answering the red phone at 3 a.m.