While many people profess to being sick of politics and politicians, it’s odd how quickly many of them will jump into a conversation about 2016 presidential politics: whether Hillary Clinton will, or should, run for president; whether Republicans can get their party back together and repositioned in time; and even who has the best chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Personally, I have a lot of trouble getting excited about such conversations because they deal almost exclusively in an endless stream of questions, with no answers likely to be forthcoming anytime soon. Far more immediately important (and less hypothetical) is what will happen in next year’s midterm elections.
Even though those elections are just over 16 months away, we still don’t know whether Republicans will be playing defense as they were last year, when they had profound problems with minority, young, women, and self-described moderate voters. And, conversely, we don’t know if Democrats, as the party in the White House, will be on defense, as is usually the case during second terms and in so-called six-year-itch elections, halfway through a party’s second term in office. The potential for the Affordable Care Act to become radioactive again, as it was in 2009 and 2010, makes this scenario sound less theoretical and more plausible.
These are the real political questions. The presidential race in 2016 is more cocktail-party conversation at this stage, with most of the players still in the earliest phases of their decision-making processes. It will be these decisions that frame the contours of what the race will look like and allow for a semi-intelligent political discussion.
Just looking at the Democratic side, the first question is whether Clinton runs. In Washington, many people assume the answer is 100 percent based on political considerations, when the truth is that a multitude of factors come into play when people face life-changing decisions, many of them personal. If Clinton’s decision is 100 percent based on politics, the odds are very high that she runs. By almost any standard, she would begin as an overwhelming, if not prohibitive, favorite for the Democratic nomination—and the Republican Party doesn’t look particularly healthy right now.
What other considerations might Clinton, who will turn 69 in 2016 (that was Ronald Reagan’s age when he won his first White House term in 1980), take into account? By any objective judgment, Clinton was an enormously successful and highly regarded secretary of State, but there is little question that the punishing job took its toll on her health, particularly over the last year or two in office. It’s hard for any of us to appreciate what traveling 956,733 miles in four years—the equivalent of 38 times around the globe—would do to one’s health. Her travel took her to 112 countries, for a total of 401 days on the road. The health scare late last year, toward the end of her tenure, would have certainly spooked anyone.
Keep in mind also that her husband had quadruple-bypass surgery nine years ago and two coronary stents put in two years ago. Two of her former Senate colleagues have suffered devastating strokes in recent years. Clinton also lost her father 20 years ago and her mother passed away two years ago. Having lost both of my parents in the past four years, I know the tragedy can provide a different sense of mortality than one had before. Undoubtedly, Clinton looks forward to becoming a grandmother, adding yet another reason for her to think long and hard about jumping into the race.
None of this is to argue that Clinton won’t run; rather, it is to suggest that those who consider her candidacy a foregone conclusion might be neglecting to consider all of the factors that could weigh on her decision. Perhaps it’s closer to a 50-50 proposition than a done deal.
Then there is Joe Biden. There’s little doubt that the vice president wants the job, and there is no one more qualified for it. For Biden, the calculations have to be both political and personal. Taking on Clinton, if she runs, would be a formidable challenge, with a real risk of ending an undefeated and uninterrupted political career that began in 1970 with his election to the New Castle County Council in Delaware. Even if Clinton doesn’t run, Biden would turn 74 two weeks after the November 2016 general election, five years older than Reagan was when first elected president.
Though it’s been 25 years since Biden suffered from two brain aneurysms and a pulmonary embolism in 1988, and he appears to have been quite healthy since then, Biden, too, has to wonder about the rigors of another presidential campaign and, if successful, the stress of at least four years in the White House. Having been first elected in his 20s and having served in elected office for 43 years, he might also be tempted to write a book and hit the six-figure lecture circuit to stash away some serious money for his kids and grandkids.
Of course there are others. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and Martin O’Malley of Maryland may be hoping that it becomes the Year of the Governor. And if Clinton doesn’t run, other women could. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota come to mind, or even Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who built a national fundraising network in her $42 million 2012 Senate race.
But the truth is that Clinton and Biden can afford to wait to make a decision, and their verdicts will impact others. Until then, there will remain too many questions and too few facts.