In the summer, when Congress leaves town and political news grows scarce, pundits often get desperate. Shark attacks, missing blond girls, killer rabbits—suddenly, nothing is too trivial. This summer looks like no exception. The oil spill story is getting old; the recession story is older; the midterms are still months away. Thus, prepare yourself for this doozy to begin making the rounds on cable: Hillary Clinton in 2012.
On the right, speculation is already rampant. On the conservative site RedState, several bloggers have recently mused about a Hillary primary challenge to President Obama; Peggy Noonan floated the idea in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal; Dick Morris recently told Bill O’Reilly that “if Obama gets radioactive, there’s a significant possibility that she challenges him in 2012.”
There’s no groundswell within the party for a primary challenge. And in the unlikely event that one emerged, it would probably come from Obama’s left.
No, actually, there isn’t. Put aside the fact that Hillary has said she is “ absolutely not interested” in running for president again. And put aside the fact that by becoming secretary of state she has given substance to that rhetoric—since Foggy Bottom is a terrible place from which to launch a presidential campaign. (It gives her no profile on the domestic issues that matter most in a presidential campaign and no platform from which to raise money or visit early primary states.)
Even if you discount the supply-side problems with a Hillary primary challenge, there is a massive demand-side problem. According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll, Obama’s favorability rating among Democrats is 84 percent. There’s no groundswell within the party for a primary challenge. And in the unlikely event that one emerged, it would probably come from Obama’s left. The history of primary challenges—Eugene McCarthy against Lyndon Johnson in 1968 (before Johnson dropped out), Ronald Reagan against Gerald Ford in 1976, Ted Kennedy against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Pat Buchanan against George H.W. Bush—is that they come from ideological purists angry at presidents who have drifted too far to the center. On the day he doubled down on health care, Obama pretty much inoculated himself against that charge. And even if he hadn’t, Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly well-positioned to challenge Obama from the left. No matter how much liberal activists grow to distrust him, they distrust her more.
The claim that Hillary will challenge Obama in 2012 is a lot like the claim that George W. Bush would dump Dick Cheney in 2004. In both cases, what seemed like dispassionate analysis was actually wishful thinking. Liberals loved speculating about Bush dumping Cheney because it would have confirmed what they desperately wanted to believe: that the Bush-Cheney ticket was too right-wing to win re-election. Similarly, conservatives are hungry to believe that Hillary Clinton will blow up the Democratic Party in order to give herself another chance at the Oval Office. But that’s hard to square with her loyalty to Obama during his race against John McCain, and her loyalty as secretary of State. As much as conservatives yearn to see Hillary as someone loyal to nothing but her own ambition, the last couple of years don’t bear out the case.
Similarly, conservatives yearn to see Obama as a failed president, and nothing would make them happier than to see that analysis validated by those on Obama’s side of the aisle. In her Wall Street Journal column, Noonan declared, “Mr. Obama is starting to look unlucky, and–file this under Mysteries of Leadership–that is dangerous for him because Americans get nervous when they have a snakebit president.” Noonan’s only evidence for this sweeping judgment about American political history is Jimmy Carter, to whom she compares Obama eight times. (A more problematic data point might have been Franklin Roosevelt, who was unlucky enough to encounter both the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler, and yet won the presidency four times.)
But the Carter-Obama analogy, although already a stable of conservative discourse, cannot withstand even minimal intellectual pressure. Carter, unlike Obama, was distrusted from the start by grassroots liberals, many of whom backed Morris Udall or Fred Harris in the 1976 Democratic primaries. That distrust was exacerbated by Carter’s fiscally conservative economic policies, which struck many activist Democrats as a repudiation of the Great Society. Obama, by contrast, is the most beloved Democratic leader since Kennedy, if not FDR, and he has passed more important progressive legislation than any president since Lyndon Johnson.
It’s easy to see why conservatives would be salivating at the thought of a Hillary primary challenge. Presidents who face serious primary challenges—Ford, Carter, Bush I—almost always lose. The last president who lost re-election without a serious primary challenge, by contrast, was Herbert Hoover. But in truth, the chances that Obama will face a primary challenge are vanishingly slim, and the chances that he will lose re-election only slightly higher. No wonder conservatives are fantasizing about Hillary Clinton taking down Barack Obama. If she doesn’t, it’s unlikely they will.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.