Up for re-election after a successful first term, with overwhelming popular approval, the candidate is a prohibitive favorite to win again. Sporting a Presidential name and a stunning capacity to attract campaign money, the candidate can pull in a million dollars or more simply by showing up for dinner, not only locally but anywhere in the country.
While the candidate insists that winning a second term is the only priority, the nation’s political elites and pundits openly speculate that plans are being laid for a White House bid. Everywhere the candidate goes—and the candidate goes everywhere, both to address the party faithful and raise funds—reporters ask about the Presidency. The next Presidential election is still years away, but the candidate already leads all potential rivals in opinion polls and insider surveys.
Back home, the candidate’s would-be opponents seek to transform those looming national ambitions into a negative campaign issue. Those opponents accuse the candidate of paying more attention to national politics than home-state concerns and suggest that running for President will mean only part-time attention to pressing issues.
Who is this candidate? Of course, the description fits Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior Senator from New York and presumed Democratic Presidential contender. Seven years ago, however, precisely the same profile would have perfectly described George W. Bush, then running for his second term as Governor of Texas—and preparing to decide whether he would run for President of the United States.
During Mr. Bush’s 1998 re-election campaign, politicians and journalists correctly calculated that he was certain to begin running for President the following year. He was raising millions of dollars in places far from Austin, and he was doing his best to deflect questions about the Presidency without sounding overly coy.
To his credit, Mr. Bush never tried to deny that he might very well seek national office. “The truth is, I don’t know whether or not I’m going to run for the Presidency, and won’t know for quite a while,” he said in May 1998. “That’s just something Texas voters will have to factor into their decision.” He made those comments six months before his landslide victory over a Democrat who tried to make an issue of his Presidential prospects.
The issue of Presidential potential as a distraction from present responsibilities arose when Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney, announced her intention to seek the Republican nomination against Mrs. Clinton. Fumbling her way through an uninspired speech, Mrs. Pirro mentioned few substantive disagreements with the incumbent. Instead, she boasted of the “broad blue stripes” that offset her Republican redness and emphasized her disagreements with the Bush administration.
The would-be challenger’s sharpest complaint is that Mrs. Clinton could conceivably run for President while serving in the Senate. According to Mrs. Pirro, in fact, that complaint is the foundation of her candidacy.
“I am running for the Senate because New York deserves a Senator who will give her all to the people of New York for a full term—full time—and not miss votes to campaign in the 2008 Presidential primaries,” the District Attorney explained in her announcement speech last week. “New York deserves a Senator who has New York’s interests at heart—not the divided loyalties of one seeking to satisfy the needs of the people in Iowa, New Hampshire or Florida.
“You will know where my opponent and I disagree and where we agree,” Mrs. Pirro went on. But mostly, she concluded, “I’m the one candidate running for Senator from New York who really wants to be Senator from New York.”
There are many flaws in this argument, but let’s begin with the most obvious. Somehow it didn’t occur to Mrs. Pirro that if the people of New York deserve a “full-time” Senator, then the good citizens of Westchester County also deserve a full-time District Attorney—and she should resign because her attention will be consumed by a statewide campaign for the next 16 months. Yet even if Mrs. Pirro does resign, the notion that anyone contemplating a Presidential candidacy shouldn’t stand for re-election to the Senate or statehouse is still stupid and harmful. Pursued to its logical conclusion, this stricture would eliminate many of the most able and talented politicians from public service.
Nobody in Kansas made an issue of Senator Robert Dole’s ambitions when he sought the Republican Presidential nomination in 1980 and 1988. (He did resign his Senate seat, in 1996, when he was the party’s nominee.) Should John McCain, the conscience of the Republican Party, have renounced his easy re-election last year because he may run for President again in 2008? Nobody in Arizona mentioned the idea, including his plucky Democratic opponent.
If White House political guru Karl Rove encouraged Mrs. Pirro to run, as many observers believe, then perhaps he should devise a more persuasive—and less sophomoric—rationale for her campaign.