Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Misconceiving Condi ... and Hillary

Condoleezza Rice is an indubitably brilliant, gutsy invaluable person. Quite possibly, she is an original genius. And, while Hillary hasn't got a fraction going on upstairs of what Condi does, Hillary's no slouch.

But Condoleezza Rice will not defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidency in 2008, contrary to what New York Times political columnist William Safire predicted during a stop in Ypsilanti Monday.

Mr. Safire probably just wants to amuse and excite.

Condi Rice might be an appropriate Vice Presidential candidate. But she has never even run for office, and never held a top executive position. Condi has soared as a brilliant advisor and/or second-in-command to several demanding people in several difficult positions. Her's is an invaluable set of talents - but that is not the same as having demonstrated she can - or wants to - run her own show. If Condi Rice has any interest in ultimately obtaining the Presidency, which I very much doubt, she will first have to obtain some elected office - preferably a State governorship. If she wants it, it might be possible for her to obtain the governorship of California, for example, as Mr. Safire suggests. From a successful term in an office such as the California governorship, Condi Rice would be restricted by no visible horizon. She should go for it.

But that won't put her in the Presidential race for 2008. Gray Davis is governor until 2006. Ms. Rice will not seek and obtain that office in 2006 just to start running for President in 2008 simply because she is far too gifted to do something that silly and self destructive. No, 2012 would be her earliest year. She's still young.

Similarly, if Hillary Clinton has her eye on the Oval Office, she is taking a problematic path. The last person to obtain the Presidency directly from the Senate was John F. Kennedy - and his was a very unusual story from which it is impossible to generalize. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last President who had spent a large amount of time in the Senate, and while he won his Presidential election following Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's administration was ultimately a disaster.

For the most part, the road to the Presidency is a Senate boneyard: Humphrey, Gore, Mondale, Dole, McCain and any number of other Senators who have been denied nomination. Of course, not every governor who seeks the Presidency obtains the office, but it does appear to be easier for governors - even from small states such as Georgia or Arkansas - to obtain the Presidency than it is for Senators to do so. But governors from large states (New York, California, Texas) seem to be a good deal more successful once they obtain the office.

One of the more curious and important aspects of Kennedy's story was that his time in the Senate appears not to have suffused him with one bit with the "get-along, go-along" personality that normally seems to be required for success in that body - but which is not easily compatible with a President's need to provide real leadership. The same cannot be said of Hillary Clinton, who each passing day seems more a creature from the cloak room. Her supposed increased "moderation" is probably part of that. In her Hilliaycare fiasco, Senator Clinton had already shown her unfortunate penchant for attempting to address large public issues with shady committee action. Her Senate experience - which seems to focus unduly on her fundraising prowess on behalf of other Democrats who will presumably be in her debt and on her influence with the party apparatus, especially the DNC - is apparently reinforcing her wrongheaded view of the Presidency.

A Presidential election is not a big, smoke-filled-room. And, unlike the Senate, the Presidency cannot easily be run as a set of obscure private deals and strategic manipulations of technical rules. Voters understand all that, notwithstanding that at any given time the Senate contains approximately 100 people who think they could fill the desk chair in the Oval Office better than the person then sitting in it.

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