Yesterday The Atlantic Wire published a post titled "Hillary Clinton Is Running for President, OK?" suggesting that the traditional campaign kabuki, in which we all pretend there is reasonable doubt that someone is running for president right up until the moment the words "I'm running" leave a candidate's mouth. In response, we got a reminder that the kabuki must be respected: no one say Hillary Clinton is running for president, OK?
Our story was inspired by a Page Six item in the New York Post, which was picked from the Greek Reporter, in which much ado was made over Clinton donor Angelo Tsakopoulos telling a private banquet last weekend, "Hillary will be our next president and she will be a great one... I talked to her husband, and he confirmed it. She will run." This utterance is not newsworthy to anyone who is paying even slight attention to the early maneuverings for the 2016 campaign. Indeed, the only reason that it is newsworthy is because of the kabuki conventions; another way you could put this story is "Clinton donor caught saying true thing he's not supposed to."
Since stepping down last month as Secretary of State at the end of January, a diplomatic role that traditionally bars the occupant from making overt partisan moves, Clinton has worked to build a supporter email list, created a new website, and, according to Tsakopoulos, said something that left his daughter, Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, under the impression that she had a job on her campaign. In other words, Clinton seems to be doing the things that someone who is running for president would do in this very early portion of the presidential election cycle. She's not running running, and Clinton could change her mind, of course, but any non-partial observer would say it looks like Clinton is running for president.
Tsakopoulos, of course, spoke out of turn, upsetting the careful ambiguity candidates-but-not-candidates craft around their presidential ambitions. And so we received a statement from John Sitilides, representative of Tsakopoulos, carefully denying what Tsakopoulos said about Clinton's presidential campaign-related activities:
During a recent discussion with a reporter, Mr. Tsakopoulos freely expressed his own sincere hope and personal opinion that Hillary Clinton would run for President because he believes she would make a great President. He had previously informed President Bill Clinton that if Secretary Clinton were to run for President, he wanted to be supportive. President Clinton responded that he would share that comment with her. That was the verbal exchange on the subject. Nonetheless, it is clear from Secretary Clinton’s statements that at this point she has made no plans to run for office.
You can see this phenomenon at work in another presidential ambitions. "Rahm Emanuel May Be Toying With 2016 Presidential Run," The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove reports, a headline that is followed by four on-the-record denials and one off-the-record one but sustained by two on-the-record affirmations:
Yet rumors of Emanuel’s higher ambitions persist. “I heard there were some conversations with donors especially during the inauguration,” a well-known Democratic politico told The Daily Beast, referring to the January 20-21 celebrations in Washington marking the launch of President Obama’s second term. A second highly placed Democrat echoed that account.
Are we really that shocked that Emanuel harbors political ambitions? He was working in the Clinton White House by the time he was 34 years old. He was a member of Congress, and then President Obama's chief of staff, one of the most powerful unelected positions in the whole world. Is it really more plausible that once he became mayor of Chicago, he thought, Well, that's good enough for me?
Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and others are all going through this ritual on the Republican side. "Anybody on the Republican side even thinking or talking about running for president in 2016, I’ve said needs to get their head examined," Jindal said earlier this month. It's easier to illustrate the kabuki when we know the end of the story. Here's the Chicago Sun-Times in November 2004:
Obama for president? That's 'silly'
Here's USA Today in July 2005:
"In 2008 or some other time," [an elderly voter] says, "will we get a chance to work for you for president?"
Obama grins, but demurs. He is not running for president. Not in 2008, at least.
Time, May 2006:
Barack Obama Isn't Not Running for President
The New York Times, September 2006:
Senator Barack Obama insists, as always, that he is not running for president. But there are compelling clues that he is not exactly not running, either.
CNN, October 2006:
"I would say I am still at the point where I have not made a decision to pursue higher office, but it is true that I have thought about it over the last several months," the 45-year-old Democratic senator from Illinois told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Barack Obama, January 2007:
I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.
Anyone with any kind of familiarity with Obama's biography knew he was an ambitious guy. Likewise, in 1992, Bill Clinton pitched his marriage as "two for the price of one." She ran for Senate before he left the White House. Upon leaving the State Department, she and the sitting president gave a joint interview in which he practically handed the baton to her. She is an ambitious lady. That's perfectly OK. Just don't say it out loud.