Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
About 20 minutes into his speech last night, Bill Clinton invoked Mitch McConnell’s 2010 statement that his party’s top priority was denying Barack Obama a second term.
“Senator,” Clinton said, “I hate to break it to you, but we’re going to keep President Obama on the job!”
And with that the crowd erupted into the first of what turned into a series of “Four more years!” chants. The speech Clinton gave may help them realize that wish. Point by point, the former president rebutted the major lines of attack that Republicans have deployed against Obama. He also provided politically helpful context about the nature of the economic crisis Obama inherited and the Republican obstruction he’s faced that the president himself can’t spell out (for fear of seeming like he’s passing the buck and pointing fingers at his predecessor).
But the way Clinton was received Wednesday night, the “Four more years!” chants could just as easily have been directed at him. Clinton himself will never run for office again, but the possibility of a Clinton restoration is still very much alive. No matter who wins this fall, the Democratic nomination for 2016 will be open, and Clinton’s speech undoubtedly advanced his wife’s prospects for claiming it if she wants it.
Obviously, it’s still early – very early – but Hillary Clinton looms over the ’16 Democratic race as a front-runner like we’ve never seen before. Yes, the same was said about her in the run-up to 2008, when she was supposedly assembling the biggest, meanest, best-funded campaign operation of the modern era – and when she ended up losing out to a guy who’d been a state legislator until 2004.
But Hillary also had two clear vulnerabilities in ’08. One was her vote for the Iraq war, a serious sore spot with the party’s base. The other was her image. Republicans had begun treating her as one of their chief enemies in 1992 and hadn’t stopped even after her husband left office. They’d had no reason to; she’d gone straight from the White House to the Senate, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before she ran for president. This left her with dangerously high negative poll numbers and left many Democrats open to an ‘08 alternative – someone whose nomination wouldn’t immediately relaunch the Clinton Wars of the ‘90s. In Obama, these Clinton-wary Democrats found the perfect vehicle, and the rest is history.
As ’16 approaches, these weaknesses no longer apply. The Democrats’ intraparty divide over Iraq has long since healed. And, as I’ve written before, Republicans dramatically altered their posture toward the Clintons when Obama usurped them as the face of the Democratic Party in 2008. Since then, the GOP has portrayed both Bill and Hillary as sympathetic figures, victims of Obama and his ruthless thirst for power and symbols of a moderate, unifying style of leadership that Obama has forsaken. For the first time since they’ve been national figures, the Clintons for the last four years haven’t been the subject of daily attacks from their partisan foes.
And within the Democratic Party, the ill will toward them from Obama loyalists began disappearing when Obama tapped Hillary to be his secretary of state. And if there was any left before this week, Bill’s rousing defense of Obama on Wednesday night surely erased it.
The result of all of this is that both Clintons are more popular than ever. And with four years as secretary of state under her belt, Hillary seems even more prepared than last time to assume the presidency. Nor is there an Obama-like figure poised to swoop in and compete on an immediately level playing field with her. This is why early ’16 polling shows her racking up absurd advantages over her prospective foes. The biggest obvious threat she faces is Joe Biden, but she runs well ahead of him, and the smart money says he won’t run if she does. After Biden, the next biggest name in the mix is Andrew Cuomo – and there’s also reason to doubt he’ll run if she does.
The best parallel for where Clinton now stands might be found in George W. Bush, who was the overwhelming choice of his party’s political, financial and activist base in 2000 – so much that most of his opponents ended up dropping out before the first primary was held. Bush did get a brief scare that year from John McCain, but it was only because of McCain’s support from non-Republicans, who could participate in some primaries (including New Hampshire). Within the GOP, Bush was the early consensus favorite. If she runs in ’16, Hillary is poised to play a similar role. If she wants to.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
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