“The order of succession to the presidency in this poor benighted country may well be Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton.”
—Dick Morris to NewsMax.com, May 2002
The year 2003 began with startling prospects for New York’s junior senator, opportunities that were almost unimaginable just weeks before. Former vice president Al Gore had dominated Democratic Party presidential preference polls for most of 2002. But in all the surveys in which her name had been included—regional polls taken by New York’s Marist College or Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University or national polls like Gallup or Zogby International—former first lady Hillary Clinton routinely ran a strong second to Gore. Gore usually managed to draw between 30 and 40 percent in these surveys, with Mrs. Clinton running about 10 to 15 points behind. Meanwhile, other prospective candidates—rising political stars like John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and John Edwards, who were regularly touted by the experts as the party’s best hope to beat George Bush in 2004—almost never attracted more than single-digit support.Gore Withdraws
Then it happened. On December 15, 2002, Gore stunned the political world by announcing that he would not seek a much anticipated rematch against President Bush in 2004. Overnight, Hillary Clinton rocketed to the top of the two major polls of Democratic Party presidential prospects, attracting 30 percent support in a Time/CNN survey and 40 percent backing in a Gallup poll. In both surveys, more Democrats backed Clinton than her two nearest competitors, Kerry and Lieberman, combined. The first presidential spouse to hold elective office in U.S. history was suddenly her party’s front-runner for the 2004 presidential nomination. A week later, Hillary Clinton was named “the most admired woman in America” in a separate CNN survey, edging out even current first lady Laura Bush.
Throughout the early months of 2003, Mrs. Clinton continued to top presidential surveys of Democrats, drawing 42 percent support in one February Quinnipiac survey. In her home state of New York, 50 percent of Democrats wanted her to run—a greater percentage than all the other Democrats combined when undecided voters were figured in.The Big Question
Will Hillary run in 2004 when the plan has always been for her to make her move in 2008? And if she does, can she win? My answer to those two questions, as someone who has covered both Bill and Hillary Clinton for years as a reporter for the online news Web site NewsMax.com, will likely surprise Democrats—and perhaps shock Republicans into a new awareness of the dangers that lie ahead. Because the short answer to both questions is yes and yes. Her denials to the contrary, Hillary Clinton is considering a presidential run against George W. Bush in 2004 because she knows that year’s election may be her last, best hope to reclaim the White House.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, most observers acknowledged that Bush’s superb performance dispelled any doubts about his strength of character, his resolve, and his leadership. His stirring words—delivered from Ground Zero just a few days after the twin symbols of America’s economic dominance collapsed in a cloud of debris that made Lower Manhattan look as if it had been the target of a nuclear strike—rallied a shaken nation and will remain among the most memorable ever uttered by a U.S. president. Burned into the American psyche forever is the now famous quote: “I can hear you. The world can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” It was Bush’s shout-out to a firefighter who complained that the president couldn’t be heard. The off-the-cuff response from a president not known for his spontaneous eloquence became the most memorable phrase uttered by any leader since FDR pronounced the attack on Pearl Harbor “a day that will live in infamy.”
That day Senator Clinton, not yet a year in office, was among the dignitaries who crowded the small paths carved through the Ground Zero rubble where the president would walk. A witness told NewsMax that Bush was mobbed by firefighters and rescue workers anxious to show support for the nation’s leader in a moment of national crisis. “They couldn’t wait to shake his hand. And they did the same with Giuliani and Pataki—even Schumer, too,” he said, referring to the Republican governor and mayor as well as the state’s senior senator, a Democrat. “But when her turn came the guys just folded their arms and wouldn’t shake her hand. I’m no fan of Hillary,” the source added. “But even I felt bad for her.” The episode didn’t make the newspapers, but it spoke volumes about the nation’s disdain for her husband’s legacy in the immediate aftermath of September 11.
The White House knew that the nation’s near unanimous support for Bush in those weeks of September and October 2001 wouldn’t last forever, but they bet—correctly as it turned out—that the tragedy that took 3,000 lives would color American politics for the foreseeable future. The battle of the 2002 midterm election, the White House decided, would be waged on national security issues. Now, with both houses of Congress as well as the presidency in GOP hands, all that goes right—along with anything that does not—will be credited to George Bush.The Gulf War Lesson
Unlike his son, George Herbert Walker Bush did not have the same sweeping control over the government when he was president. And yet with his Gulf War victory over Iraq in March 1991—just twenty months before the 1992 election—Bush Sr.’s approval ratings hit a stratospheric 91 percent. He was considered so politically invincible that most Democrats thought it was a waste of time to challenge him. Even New York governor Mario Cuomo, whose stirring speech to the 1984 Democratic Convention had turned him into a presidential contender and whose Depression-era rhetoric would have been perfect for the burgeoning recession that was then just a flicker on the national radar screen, decided not to get in the race.
Enter Bill Clinton, whose sordid private life and sorry military record—he dodged three separate draft notices and finally reneged on a pledge to serve in the reserves—made him his party’s perfect sacrificial lamb. “[Clinton] would get opened up like a soft peanut,” predicted then Senator Bob Kerrey, after abandoning his own bid for the White House in 1992.1 No way could this Arkansas unknown—whose only previous moment in the national spotlight came during a speech to the 1988 Democratic convention that went on so long they had to get out the hook—beat the man who led America to victory in the Persian Gulf and whose own military record as a World War II pilot shot down over the Pacific qualified him as a war hero.
Yet it happened. When the Democratic Party looked destitute in 1991 and 1992 and Bush Sr.’s popularity was at least as high as his son’s was in the wake of September 11, the team of Clinton and Clinton decided to get into the race. From there they managed not only to get themselves elected, but also to hold on to the White House longer than any other Democratic administration since FDR’s.Déjà Vu 1992?
For the Bush family, 2004 could be shaping up as déjà vu all over again. By the fall of 2002, Democrats like New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine had begun referring to “the worst economic environment we’ve had in 50 years”—an unmistakable echo of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign mantra that under Bush Sr. Americans were suffering “the worst economy in 50 years.”2 Then after the midterm election, the dismissal of top Bush administration economic officials Paul O’Neill and Lawrence Lindsey had Democrats crowing over what looked like an admission that the president’s economic policies had been an abject failure.
In 1991 and 1992, Bush Sr. at least had the afterglow of the Iraq war victory to cushion the blow of a souring economy. Today, the international horizons are a good deal more clouded. Another Al Qaeda attack on U.S. soil—especially one that could be tied to Bush’s decision to leave U.S. immigration policy and border controls virtually unchanged since September 11—would be met by a chorus of congressional critics arguing that the president had deliberately left America vulnerable. If the next attack comes with a Saudi pedigree, previous assurances that the Saudis have been “reliable allies in the war on terror” delivered by senior administration officials like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, not to mention Bush himself, will look particularly ridiculous. In that case the president would be vulnerable to charges that he put his own family’s long-standing relationship with Riyadh royalty ahead of U.S. national security interests. And any U.S. attack on Iraq that ends up with terrorists retaliating on American soil will have the media blaming Bush for putting American civilian populations in harm’s way instead of protecting them.
Instinctively, most Democrats seem to understand that Bush indeed will be vulnerable in 2004. Unlike 1991, a year out from the New Hampshire primary there is no shortage of ambitious Democrats seeking to challenge Bush in 2003; among them are John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, and Bob Graham. That’s a lot of high-powered political talent competing for the chance to be the Democratic Party’s sacrificial lamb in 2004.The Risks of Waiting
Another factor Hillary has to consider: Waiting until 2008 entails substantial career risks. What if, for instance, another Democrat beats Bush in 2004? Mrs. Clinton’s year of choice, 2008, would have to go by the boards unless she wanted to lead a political insurrection against a president of her own party—or go the third-party route herself. By not making the run in 2004 against Bush, she may end up having to wait until 2012 if the Democrat who beats Bush wins a second term. By then Hillary Clinton would be at retirement age, sixty-five, just four years younger than Ronald Reagan when he sought the White House in 1980 amidst catcalls from Democrats that he was too old for the job.
Also arguing for a Hillary presidential bid sooner rather than later is the Democratic Party itself, still in the grip of Clinton-era apparatchiks. The Democratic National Committee’s top message people, Maria Cardona and Jennifer Palmieri, are former Clintonistas. Cardona was the widely quoted spokeswoman for the Clinton INS during the Elian Gonzalez fiasco. Palmieri worked in the White House before becoming one of Clinton’s postpresidential spokeswomen. In fact, in June 2001, both the ex-president and former first lady ordered Terry McAuliffe, whom they had handpicked to run the DNC six months earlier, to hire Palmieri as DNC spokeswoman after party officials initially balked.3 (She has since moved on to join the campaign of presidential hopeful, Senator John Edwards, who had reportedly been consulting with Bill Clinton throughout much of 2002.) Still, the Clinton influence didn’t help much when it came to the 2002 midterm election debacles, when the party’s hard-won control of the Senate evaporated overnight.
Many rank-and-file Democrats blamed McAuliffe. No wonder. He made Florida governor Jeb Bush Democratic Party enemy number one and diverted precious financial resources into a campaign to defeat him. Despite the Clinton moneyman’s best efforts, Governor Bush beat his opponent Bill McBride by a 13-point landslide. And Democrats around the country were left grousing that the cash wasted in the McBride effort might have been better spent to save Democratic senators like Jean Carnahan and Walter Mondale, who went down to defeat in close races where the extra funds might have made the difference.
Still, McAuliffe wasn’t fired. And that’s because, in targeting the Bush family, he was merely following the orders of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who still control the party’s fund-raising apparatus through Mr. McAuliffe, despite their own Election Day debacle. Most of the candidates they campaigned for around the country also went down to defeat. But when independent observers suggested the 2002 election results showed it was time for the former first couple to relinquish their leadership role, elected Democrats themselves would have none of it. Typical was the reaction of New York Representative Gary Ackerman: “I’ve been with President Clinton as recently as a week or so ago and he’s still one of the most popular drawing cards you could have anywhere in the country, probably second only to President Bush,” the New York Democrat boasted to a New York radio interviewer a few days after the election. “He attracts huge, huge crowds, very enthusiastic.”4 Translation: The Clintons won’t be giving up control of the Democratic Party anytime soon.Democrats Held Hostage
In truth, they probably couldn’t afford to—not if Hillary Clinton ever wants to sit in the Oval Office herself. That’s another reason why 2008 looks increasingly problematic for Hillary. Six years is a long time to hold a national political party hostage to your ambitions. And McAuliffe isn’t likely to be able to maintain his grip on the party beyond the 2004 election, especially if his candidate loses, forcing the Clintons to step aside and let somebody else run the show. Even if a Democrat wins, it’s bad news for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential designs. By 2012, there will have been too much water under the bridge for Americans to remember much about the Clintons beyond Monica Lewinsky and impeachment.
Hillary Clinton seemed to understand this when, in late November 2002, just after her party’s downfall at the polls, she stuck a finger in the eye of Gore’s presidential hopes at a time when he was going through a very public soul-searching over his political future. Gore and his wife Tipper were in the midst of their high-profile book tour, a kind of second-family listening tour that was widely understood to be a vehicle to test the appeal of another Gore presidential bid.
As the vice president who had proclaimed on the day of Mr. Clinton’s impeachment that he thought his boss would go down in history as “one of the greatest presidents ever,” Gore was owed a significant debt of loyalty. And despite rumors about continuing resentments left over from the Monica Lewsinky case, as well as Gore’s decision not to give Mr. Clinton a high-profile role in his 2000 presidential campaign, Hillary had no problem offering a full-throated endorsement for a Tipper senatorial bid when the ex–second lady voiced an interest in March 2002. “I talked to her this morning,” Hillary told the New York Daily News after Tipper floated the idea. “I called her and told her I’d heard this, and that if, after careful consideration, she decided to do this, I’d be fully behind her. I think she’s a wonderful person, and I’d be delighted to campaign for her.”5
That’s a far cry from the support Tipper’s husband got from Hillary Clinton just before Thanksgiving, when Clinton repeatedly refused to endorse Gore for a 2004 run during an appearance on Chris Matthews’s Hardball.
MATTHEWS: If former Vice President Al Gore seeks the Democratic nomination and announces it this coming January as he said he will make an announcement one way or the other, will you support his candidacy?
CLINTON: I’m a very good friend of Al Gore and Tipper Gore and I’m going to wait and see whether he decides to run. I think that has to be his decision. It’s so personal and I’m going to support whoever the Democratic nominee is.
MATTHEWS: If I had a really, really good friend—as you’ve described Al Gore to me—a really, really good friend, and he was telling me I think I’m going to run for president. I’ll announce in January . . .
CLINTON: He hasn’t said that to me.
MATTHEWS: But if he did announce, I’d say “I’m with you” beforehand. I wouldn’t wait and say, “Well, if you run I’ll be with you.” You’ll say, “I’m with you, buddy, all the way.” What have you said to him?
CLINTON: He hasn’t talked to me about it . . .
MATTHEWS: . . . OK. Come January 6 or so, when I think he’s going to make his announcement—will you support him then?
CLINTON: You know, I’m going to Hawaii.
MATTHEWS: But you will—as he will make a decision—you will make a decision whether to endorse him at that point.
CLINTON: No. You know, Chris, I don’t endorse in Democratic primaries.6
Clinton’s unexpected refusal to offer Gore any measure of support should have sent shock waves through the political press. What would it have cost her, after all, to repay her debt of loyalty to Gore with an endorsement—even if, in the end, another candidate had picked up steam and supplanted the ex–vice president as the front-runner? The answer, of course, is nothing—unless that other candidate turned out to be Hillary Clinton herself, which would have made the early Gore endorsement look like a premeditated act of political sabotage. Whether coincidence or not, twenty-five days after Mrs. Clinton openly repudiated another Gore presidential bid, the former vice president withdrew from the race.Hillary Positioned
As the only Democratic candidate with 100 percent name recognition and a ready-to-go coast-to-coast fund-raising operation—as a candidate who has been piling up IOUs raising cash for other candidates—Hillary Clinton knows she won’t have to toil like the others in the political vineyards more than a year ahead of time, building up her profile and introducing herself to the world of Democratic Party high rollers. They’re already in her corner, ready to loosen the purse strings the moment she gives the word. Unless some other candidate catches fire between now and the convention—an unlikely proposition given the competition—Clinton can wait almost until the last minute, snap her fingers, and scarf up the nomination.
Meanwhile, she can bide her time and leave her options open. If the economy turns around, if victory in Iraq returns Bush to 80 percent approval ratings, if North Korea suddenly decides to dump its nuclear arsenal into the sea, Mrs. Clinton can step back and remind everyone that she always said she wouldn’t run in 2004. But if the victory in Iraq leads to months of troublesome occupation and the economy doesn’t improve, Hillary will be ready.
A Cautionary Tale
Hillary’s Scheme is a cautionary tale, written especially for those who insist the Clinton era is over. Political pros and pundits alike have eagerly accepted the White House’s mantra that it’s “time to move on” merely because George Bush was able to deny the Clintons the vindication of installing their own successor. But with November 2004 fast approaching, each passing week offers compelling new evidence to the contrary. In fact, Bill and Hillary have set up a White House in exile, a kind of “disloyal opposition” that includes everything from criticizing the president in wartime—sometimes from foreign soil in Mr. Clinton’s case—to trying to blame his economic policy for September 11.
Hillary’s Scheme is the first book to examine in any detail the Clintons’ plan to return to power, offering an unprecedented look into the minds and hearts of America’s number one power couple. Like no other Clinton book, Hillary’s Scheme details the tactics employed by the most ruthless political team since John and Robert Kennedy, strategies that have kept the press at bay and the public in the dark about Bill and Hillary’s sordid personal histories and rampant abuses of power.
But it also explores the failed political strategies of the Bush White House and the Republican Party—the withering timidity of Bush’s “new tone” that all but guarantees the Clintons a serious shot at reclaiming the White House. Having failed to vanquish Bill and Hillary by January 20, 2001, the Bush Republicans bet the farm that the ex-president and his wife would disappear into the woodwork after a short period. They were wrong. Whether GOP strategists come to appreciate in time the significance of that critical miscalculation will determine whether Dick Morris was right when he predicted last year that Hillary Clinton will succeed George Bush as the next president of the United States of America.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Hillary's Scheme by Carl Limbacher and NewsMax.com. Copyright © 2003 by Carl Limbacher and NewsMax.com. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.