Q TODAY – WHITE HOUSE TRAIL MIX
Sept. 18, 2003 – 12:23 p.m.
Could Clark Be a Stalking Horse for Hillary Clinton?
By Craig Crawford, CQ Columnist
Don't laugh. I'm serious.
That ticket is the only way I can make sense of Gen. Wesley Clark's sudden adventure into presidential politics.
Clark must be a stalking horse for Hillary Rodham Clinton. And not for her to be his running mate, as some suggest — but the other way around.
Sure, believing that the junior senator from New York will run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination might be the political equivalent of believing in Unidentified Flying Objects.
But on Wednesday, I am sure I saw a UFO flying over the head of Clark as he announced his quest for the presidency from Little Rock, Ark. Piloted by the Clinton pals now managing Clark's every movement, this flying saucer could soon land and reveal its true cargo: Hillary.
The publicly-known list of Clintonites on Clark's team encourages speculation that the 42nd president and New York's senator are somewhere in the mix. It includes former presidential spokesman Mark Fabiani; fundraiser Skip Rutherford; confidant Bruce Lindsey; and 1992 campaign bosses Eli Segal and Mickey Kantor. Others, including former aides to Vice President Al Gore, are in the wings.
Suspend disbelief for a moment and consider the scenario. For Clinton to run, she needs more time to shake her pledge to New York voters that she would not seek the presidency this soon. The massive media buzz surrounding Clark's nascent campaign buys her time by diverting attention from the only threat to a Clinton bid — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's dazzling rise in the nomination race.
Husband Bill publicly launched the pledge-dodge maneuver for his wife just as Clinton loyalists working for Clark leaked word to the media that the general would definitely run.
How convenient that Bill Clinton's own former chief of staff Leon E. Panetta asked the set-up question at a forum on Sept. 16 in Monterey, Calif. Panetta asked if there was "a chance" Hillary Clinton would run in the current campaign.
"That's really a decision for her to make," Bill Clinton said. But didn't Sen. Clinton already say she had made her decision, repeatedly vowing not to run? Why did he not repeat her official stand?
Having cracked the door open much further than his wife ever has, Bill then oddly ruminated about the vagaries of her pledge to New York voters.
"I was impressed at the state fair in New York, which is in Republican country in upstate New York, at how many New Yorkers came up and said they would release her from her commitment if she wanted to do it," Clinton said. "But she said ... she just doesn't understand how to walk away from that. So I just have to take her for where she is right now."
He knows plenty about such things. To run for president in 1992, Clinton had to conduct a series of town hall meetings with Arkansas voters asking to be released from a similar pledge he made in his 1990 campaign for reelection as governor. He had no trouble putting it behind him.
Freezing The Field
Clark's bid hurts more people than Dean, the media-anointed front-runner who has so far faced no serious threat from the existing field. The other major candidates are harmed in various ways, making it all the more likely that the race could be unsettled by the time Clinton would jump in.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts can no longer claim to be the only combat veteran running, a central rationale of his campaign.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri now faces another high-profile foe who opposed the Iraq War that the former House minority leader so strenuously supported a year ago when it seemed like the thing to do.
With so many former aides to Clinton and Al Gore on Clark's team, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut no longer seems to be the heir apparent, a status conferred by his stint as Gore's 2000 running mate.
Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida now must contend with a rival whose Southern roots threaten their already-floundering bids to be Dixie's favorite son. Clark's first campaign swing took him to Graham's home state and Edward's native state, South Carolina.
Now comes the hard part for the Clinton-Clark ticket. How does a candidate who is running drop out, endorse someone who is not running — and then become her running mate?
Such drama is not beyond Clinton's reach. She is, after all, the first First Lady with the audacity and skill to win elected office of any kind, let alone a Senate seat.
My best shot at imagining this scenario begins with Clark building the foundations of a national campaign by running a credible two-month effort, raising a respectable amount of cash and deploying former Clinton-Gore staffers around the country.
In the meantime, the Clintons continue their tease. She keeps saying "no" while everyone around her, including her husband, says "maybe." They closely watch President Bush's polling strength. If his slide continues, they pull the trigger in late November.
Clark and Clinton stage a summit and in a sudden burst of activity, the deal is done and she takes over his campaign organization just in time for the Nov. 21 filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary.
You may now resume disbelief. Unless you've seen a UFO lately.
Craig Crawford is a special contributor to Congressional Quarterly and a news analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and CBS News. He can be reached at (202) 419-8644 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.