If Hillary Withdraws, Democrats Murmuring, What About Bob Rubin?

“The later it happens, the better it is for our dream candidate,” said the very inside Democratic insider on the unexpected subject of when Hillary Rodham Clinton should drop out of the Senate race to which she is, of course, yet to drop in. “Our dream candidate has unlimited resources, an impeccable reputation, and is credited with most of the good things that have gone on in the last eight years: [former U.S. Treasury Secretary] Robert Rubin.”

Now, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mrs. Clinton is the Democrats’ dream candidate, and that she has no intention of doing anything with regard to the Senate race other than dropping most definitely in. “Every decision she’s made so far has been in one direction,” Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald correctly pointed out, and the direction to which Ms. Grunwald was referring was the one leading straight toward the starting line. In addition to summering on some of the most remote and Republican stops along the New York campaign trail, Mrs. Clinton has booked herself an autumn that her supporters fall just short of characterizing as one long fund-raiser that will break only for the Jewish holidays and other solemnities. Her exploratory committee has sent out over one million pieces of direct-mail fund-raising solicitation. She is said to be telephoning aides late at night for chats about the campaign; reading voraciously on such matters as the bridge between upstate New York and Canada.

More startlingly, the notoriously private and press-wary Mrs. Clinton has launched Talk magazine with revelations about her marriage, from the emotional scarring of the President in his childhood to the truly disturbing notion of the first couple discussing day care policy over morning grapefruit on a romantic summer weekend. Whether or not the interview was a politically astute move, it is hard to fathom her having made it as a prelude to a return to private life. And on Friday, July 10, at the question-and-answer period with the press that followed one of her “listening sessions,” Mrs. Clinton clearly hoped to quell, or at least to quiet, the little boomlet of doubt that had begun to bubble about her intentions, and allowed herself to sound more decisive on the subject of her candidacy than she ever has. “I am more and more excited about the prospect of this possible race,” she said in response to a question from the Associated Press as to whether she would get out before getting in. “This is the only job I am interested in,” she said, after laughing off the question, motivated by that morning’s lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal , to the effect that she stood a better chance of being named head of the World Bank than of being elected to a U.S. Senate seat for New York.

In the eyes of many New York Democrats, all this adds up to the specter of a sure candidate placing a politically astute “maybe” on an obvious “yes.” For instance, “Dennis Rivera would be shocked, beyond shocked, if she didn’t run,” said Ken Sunshine, spokesman for the leader of Local 1199, the politically potent hospital and health care workers’ union that has been at the core of the push for her candidacy. “Zero,” is the number placed by one of the First Lady’s staunchest personal and political allies on the odds that she will not make the race.

Yet, there is, unmistakably, that doubt. The doubt can, of course, be explained as the bipartisan child of her political friends’ fears that she may never declare herself, and her political foes’ gleeful hope that she won’t. “I think it makes total fools out of them,” said Conservative Party chief Mike Long of his Democratic enemies in what he perhaps wishfully described as the “growing possibility” that Mrs. Clinton may not run, thus leaving the ravaged field, as Mr. Long sees it, to a replacement who “starts out with minuses because of the whole Hillary fiasco: that person was willing to support a carpetbagger, was second choice, didn’t have enough desire to run in a primary …”

“We would be at ground zero,” acknowledged Democratic activist Emily Giske.

Again, some crucial, and recent, historical perspective: Then-Representative Charles Schumer did not officially kick off his candidacy until April 1998, a full nine months further along in the process than Mrs. Clinton now finds herself. By that time, Mr. Schumer had been running long and hard, and had survived a spate of pullout predictions far more insistent than anything currently asimmer about the First Lady. (For starters, Mr. Schumer faced what was widely regarded as an uphill struggle to win the Democratic primary, in which Mrs. Clinton has, of course, been given a bye; and an entire summer of television advertising had seemed to do absolutely nothing to improve his standing in the polls.) Moreover, however strong or weak Mrs. Clinton may look in a given survey, the fact remains that a Hoover upright that can raise north of $20 million is a viable Senate candidate.

All that said, though, there does seem to be more to it than that. Now, Mr. Rubin may or may not ever give a thought to running. Indeed, though the former Secretary could not be reached by press time, he has publicly ruled out the possibility in the past. But in and of itself, the resurfacing of his name signals a sense that does seem to be gaining currency among some Democrats; a gray, wary sense that the Clinton candidacy is built on a foundation that they consider wonderful, but fragile–and somehow uniquely vulnerable to total collapse at the first great gust of wind. The First Lady was able to lay to rest the Journal suggestion about her wanting the World Bank on her résumé–but not the fact that the poll numbers, while hardly determinative, were hardly encouraging, either. Erstwhile White House Beelzebub Dick Morris seems to be alone in the theory, to which he has devoted more than one New York Post column, that the First Lady is going to pick every deep political pocket in New York, then make off with the loot to Illinois for the 2004 Senate race. “Ludicrous in the extreme,” Mrs. Clinton’s adviser Victor Kovner pronounced that scenario–and indeed, even her harshest critic would be hard pressed to explain Mrs. Clinton venturing so brazen a betrayal, let alone emerging from it sufficiently unscathed to be the favorite in any future political contest, particularly with the weight of the White House no longer behind her.

But even her political friends fall short of full dismissal of the more gracious scenario, in which she raises at least enough money to meet the goals of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, passes it off to her successor and gracefully bows out for personal, family or security reasons.

Only time will tell whether this will reveal itself to be a growing sense, or a silly speculation, in this penultimate of political silly seasons. Not that everyone feels in need of time to tell.

“She’s never flinched from doing anything, and she’s not going to flinch from doing this,” one of Mrs. Clinton’s oldest friends told The Observer . “She’s not going to blink.”