Bill Clinton's long game

Bill Clinton's speech will surely help Obama in 2012 -- and his wife in 2016

Published September 6, 2012 12:41PM (EDT)

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.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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