According to the conventional wisdom that governs the career calculations of most ambitious politicians, there are two ways to get ahead in elected politics.
The simplest way is to run for the office you covet when it comes open and to win it—or, failing that, to wage a noble-but-losing campaign that puts you first in line for the next time around. This approach enjoys a long tradition—renewed this year with John McCain’s nomination—in Republican presidential politics.
And then there’s the other strategy: If there is an unbeatable and immovable force blocking you from the office you desire, yield to that force, embrace it and hope it will favor you with its blessing for the next opening.
This is the game that some of Hillary Clinton’s most high-profile supporters have played. Evan Bayh, Tom Vilsack and Wesley Clark all clearly covet the presidency and were itching to run this year. Vilsack actually jumped into the race, the first candidate from either party to do so, back in November 2006, while Bayh formed an exploratory committee a month later and Clark never really shut down his political operation after his ill-fated 2004 campaign.
But then they all thought the better of it. Hillary Clinton was poised to enter the race as perhaps the most prohibitive front-runner in the modern primary era, powered by an unbeatable mix of cash, expectations and insider support. And whatever oxygen she wouldn’t consume would be gobbled up by Barack Obama and John Edwards, leaving no room in the 2008 contest for anyone else. The conventional wisdom of early 2007 was clear: Clinton was the inevitable winner, and with Obama and Edwards in the race, no one else could even get noticed.
One by one, then, the lesser-known but equally ambitious Democrats headed for the sidelines and joined Clinton’s cheering section. Just two weeks after launching his exploratory committee in December 2006, Bayh announced he wouldn’t be a candidate, and by September he officially backed Clinton. Vilsack ended his bid last February and signed on with Clinton a few months later, and Clark endorsed her in September.
It was easy to divine the pragmatism at work in all three moves. Bayh, for example, is a case study in why Clinton attracted so much early support in this race from so many ambitious Democrats.
Much like Al Gore, Bayh is a child of Washington, someone almost literally bred to run for president. The son of Birch Bayh, the old liberal lion and former Indiana senator who sought the Democratic presidential nod in 1976, he established roots in Indiana as soon as he earned his law degree, plunging into elected politics in 1986, when he won a race for secretary of state at age 30. Two years later, he was the governor, a post he held for two terms. By the early ‘90s, Bayh seemed on an inexorable path to the national stage.
His first big break was supposed to come in 1996, when he was asked to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic convention—the same prime-time platform that turned Mario Cuomo into a national star in 1984. But Bayh’s speech was not the smash hit that Cuomo’s was and it didn’t leave many Democrats clamoring for a Bayh presidential run in 2000. Instead, he ran for and won a Senate seat in 1998 and ended up as one of four finalists for Gore’s vice presidential slot in 2000. He passed on a 2004 campaign, perhaps calculating that George W. Bush was likely to win reelection and that his odds would be better in 2008.
Sure enough, from the moment Bush defeated Kerry in November ’04, Bayh seemed certain in 2008 to run his long-awaited national campaign. He stepped up his travel and fund-raising, dispatched a mini-army of field workers to assist Democratic candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, and sought to establish himself as the most electable ’08 option for Democrats—someone with a proven ability to win in one of the most Republican states in the country.
“More than anything else,” he said when he launched his exploratory committee, “I think we need someone who can unite the American people in the common cause of building our nation. And that’s not happening in Washington today.”
But that didn’t last long. Realizing how tough it would be to gain any traction in a race dominated by the money and personalities of Clinton, Obama and Edwards, Bayh promptly backed out. When he threw himself into Clinton’s effort, his game seemed clear: Win favor with her in the primaries to earn the VP slot on her ticket in the fall. Win or lose, he’d then be on course to win the big prize on his own in either 2012 or 2016.
Of course, he couldn’t quite admit this. Publicly, he said he was backing Clinton because “the next president of the United States must be experienced and seasoned, must be smart and must be tough.” So much for his earlier talk of finding a candidate who could unite the country and win over Republicans—hardly the calling cards of Clinton, one of the most polarizing public figures in America.
But the speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, Patrick Bauer, all but confirmed Bayh’s true motives. Bauer said that Bayh had personally courted him for the endorsement and suggested that Bayh had hinted he might end up on a Hillary-led ticket in the fall.
Vilsack and Clark, without doubt, had similar thoughts. As the moderate former governor of Iowa, a key swing state in the fall, Vilsack was well aware of the ticket-balancing assets he’d provide for any Democratic nominee, not to mention his potential importance in his state’s lead-off caucuses. In ending his own campaign and endorsing Clinton, the calculation was obvious: Deliver Iowa (and, thus, the nomination) for her and win a spot on the fall ticket. (It also didn’t hurt that Clinton helped pay off his $430,000 presidential campaign debt when he backed her.)
Clark, too, surely considered the vice presidential angle in lining up with Clinton, knowing that his military credentials would make him attractive to a wartime presidential nominee. It’s also conceivable that he had an eye on a top-level cabinet appointment, secretary of state perhaps. In fairness, unlike Bayh and Vilsack, a personal angle was also at work, given his previous ties to the Clintons.
According to the original script, the only Democratic intrigue in the spring of 2008 would involve Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential selection. This is the race that Evan Bayh, Tom Vilsack and Wesley Clark all thought they were entering when they made their endorsements. But then, of course, something funny happened, and now it looks like Barack Obama will win the nomination. Which goes to show that when you’re trying to figure out how to get onto a presidential ticket, there’s no such thing as a safe option.