You probably know this one already: the celebrity Senator—a Democrat from a big Northeastern state—up for re-election, armed with a historic cash advantage and paired against an obscure onetime local official, already telegraphing unmistakable interest in a Presidential race a short two years away.
And then New Jersey’s Bill Bradley came within an eyelash of losing his seat to former Somerset County Freeholder Christine Todd Whitman in 1990, and there went his ’92 Presidential aspirations. It takes no more than a dollop of creativity to draw up a scenario in which a similar fate befalls Hillary Clinton this November, although the analogy is far from perfect. The lone big Democratic name on the 1990 New Jersey ballot, “Dollar Bill” felt the rage of an ordinarily sleepy public jolted awake by their Democratic governor’s decision to tax their toilet paper. Hillary, by contrast, is leading an unusually strong Democratic ticket against a state Republican operation that can best be called a train wreck—this in an election season when the overarching question is how big the national Democratic wave will be, not whether there will be one. She demonstrated some electoral strength this week—to the extent her ability to trounce nuisance anti-war candidate Jonathon Tasini was ever in doubt—by winning the Democratic primary by a margin of better than four to one. And in some ways, the next few months could serve as a valuable tune-up for her. “She’s got to run and she’s got to win, and it certainly appears she’ll have no trouble doing that,” said Michael Dukakis, who can fairly relate to Hillary’s balancing act, having parlayed his landslide 1986 re-election as governor of Massachusetts into a 1988 Presidential campaign. “I think it would actually be less of a transition for her,” Mr. Dukakis said, “since she’s already on the national scene and she’s running for a federal office this year. The issues that provide the backdrop for this campaign are presumably the same issues she’d want to talk about in a Presidential campaign.” And yet there remains on her path to a cushy re-election several leg traps that could—potentially—hobble her effort to transition later to a full-fledged White House campaign. The simplest is the matter of how many votes she actually gets in November. To return to the Bradley example, a 50 percent showing humbled him off the national stage, for ’92 at least. Hillary had no chance of sinking that low. (She was sufficiently nonchalant about her primary challenge on Tuesday to have forgone any sort of public victory celebration; she was in Washington when the results came in.) But maybe a better numerical barometer this November will be how she fares compared to Eliot Spitzer, who is poised to steamroll a similarly overmatched foe in the other high-profile statewide race; if Hillary runs far off his pace, what does that say? Beyond that, analysts will be left to nitpick exit-poll cross-tabulations and town-by-town tallies dissecting Hillary’s performance in, say, the handful of competitive Congressional districts in New York (consequences for Ohio!) or among specific demographic groups that gave her trouble in 2000. More broadly, she will at last be forced to confront The Question, which to date she’s nuanced with practiced evasion, dutifully carrying out her role in the silly on-the-record games that reporters and politicians play. “Are you going to run for President?” she’s asked now, and always she replies that she’s just focused on doing the best job she can for the people of New York. But The Question will be put to her with far more precision and persistence this fall—perhaps magnified by the spotlight of live television—and it will also assume a new, more provocative form: “Will you promise the people of New York that you’ll serve a full six-year term if they re-elect you?” Say yes and her first post-November task will entail some uncomfortable and awkward wiggle-work to break free of an unwise pledge. But say no and she hands the New York media the scoop that Hillary has finally ’fessed up to her Presidential ambition. This is not uncharted territory for the family Clinton. Bill Clinton famously botched The Question in 1990, as he sought a fifth term as Arkansas’ governor. It was a matter of some sensitivity then, since he’d very publicly toyed with a Presidential bid in 1988, and the ’92 Democratic nomination was looking wide open. There were suggestions that maybe the governor was getting a bit big for his britches—a sentiment, perhaps, that explained the mere 55 percent of the vote he snagged in the gubernatorial primary that year. Spooked, Bill promptly vowed to stick around Little Rock at least through 1994, a knee-jerk posture from which he began backtracking even before the general-election campaign ended, by which time it was clear he’d win no matter what. Still, it took months of massaging and ring-kissing after the election before he was clear to enter the Presidential fray without fear that his home-state allies would loudly brand him a con man. It’s no wonder, then, that Bill, several months back, broke the customary Clinton silence on the ’08 election and suggested that Hillary follow the lead of George W. Bush—who masterfully finessed The Question while bidding for re-election as the governor of Texas in 1998. “I’m going to take a look at it,” W. said back then, and he was shoulder-deep in Presidential waters before his second gubernatorial inauguration. But even adopting that line would mark a dramatic shift in tone for Hillary, who to this point has acted like it’s a revelation that there’ll be an election of any sort in 2008 when the matter has come up. “If she has any intention of at least considering a run for President, she’s got to be open and honest about it,” Mr. Dukakis advised. Her ’08 intentions are actually the least of the weighty subjects that Hillary has managed to evade discussing publicly. Four years ago this October, she voted to send American troops to Iraq. Thousands of them have since been deployed and returned home—zipped up in bags. If she had it to do over, would she cast the same vote today? It’s a question that she’s so far punted on, no surprise given that a straight answer—a yes or a no—could antagonize one of two key constituencies: the dogged anti-war leftists who loom large in her own party’s Presidential nominating process, or the moderate-to-conservative independents who will doom her chances of turning over key red states in the general election if they smell a modern-day McGovernite. But this fall’s campaign season brings with it an instrument that could force Hillary to cough up specific replies to uncomfortable questions: the debate. By the morning after the primary, it’s a 3-to-5 bet that John Spencer, the winner in the Republican primary, will already have demanded that Hillary join him for some absurd number of head-to-head showdowns. (The over/under might be set at 62—one for each county.) And given her star power, there will be no shortage of outlets eager to sponsor, publicize, broadcast, report on and even cater any such encounter. There is a proud tradition in American politics of front-runners ducking debates. But Hillary will find it tough to shun Mr. Spencer completely, and not simply because doing so would provoke an erudite tongue-lashing from the New York Times editorial page. She is already being watched by a curious national audience: What will this ’08 electorate think if the story of this uneventful New York election season is Hillary Clinton shying away from a former mayor of Yonkers? To demonstrate strength and self-confidence, she might have to agree to one—no doubt with numerous stipulations aimed at minimizing the size of the audience and the number of direct exchanges between her and Mr. Spencer. But that could still be enough to create problems. Maybe the moderator would press
her on Iraq, refusing to accept the pat rhetoric she usually offers while waiting for her aides to steer her away from reporters. And Mr. Spencer, an accomplished bomb-thrower, will have absolutely nothing to lose. There is no telling what ugly charges he might bluntly confront Hillary with. And the more he ratchets up the intensity—especially if she takes the bait and snaps back—the more national press coverage their interaction will receive. “If you know he’s a bomb-thrower, you deal with it,” said Mr. Dukakis, who was blessed with a courtly G.O.P. opponent in his ’86 re-election. “You just focus on the things you think are important. She’s been on the national scene, and prominently so. I don’t think voters will begrudge her.” For all the potential pratfalls, of course, Hillary is actually in a fairly enviable spot. If she exercises the focused discipline that has marked her public career, chances are she’ll cross the finish line in this November’s trial heat with legs plenty fresh to carry her straight into the White House marathon. As long as she can avoid calling Mr. Spencer a putzhead.