Commentary: Just being Hillary isn't enough
By Richard Cohen
Hillary Clinton has gone to Togo.
Joe Biden is going to Iowa.
Let us now explicate.
The vice president (that's Biden) is scheduled in September to attend Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, which is what you do for a presidential race even if you have no taste for steak. Biden knows that merely by attending he is suggesting that he might enter the Iowa Democratic caucuses, which, as usual, will be the lead-off contest for the 2016 presidential election. If he does so, Clinton will be his likely opponent. Will she say that's she's been to Togo?
Will Clinton say that she's been to where no secretary of state had ever been before — the Cook Islands, for instance? Will she echo the constant refrain from her State Department tenure — that she traveled more than any secretary of state in history, an astounding 956,733 miles, which is 38.42 times around the world and which, you have to concede, is a lot. Iowans may be impressed, but being First Frequent Flier is not enough to get them out on the forbiddingly cold night when the caucuses will be held. Clinton, as my Washington Post colleague Dan Balz points out, needs a message.
At the moment, her only one is that she is a woman. Becoming the first female president is a worthy goal, but it kind of falls into the category of miles traveled and countries visited. It is an achievement, even a stunning one, but it is not a stirring trumpet call. Even now, her statistics-laden tenure has been somewhat eclipsed by her successor at State. John Kerry has already managed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to resume peace talks. If these talks produce an agreement (not likely, but still ...), then all this talk about miles traveled is going to sound awfully silly.
Clinton is undoubtedly the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2016, but then she is always the front-runner until something trips her up. The last time out — 2008 — it was her own dismal campaign and of course the emergence of one Barack Hussein Obama, a junior senator promising "hope." To counter that, Clinton had no real message of her own. Instead, there was a fustiness about her, a familiarity that was both good and bad. She was — remains — Bill Clinton's wife and that, as we all know, is both good and bad.
Now, just as Kerry is strutting his stuff as secretary of state, comes the revolting Anthony Weiner, whose association with Clinton through his wife, Huma — a Hillary Clinton intimate — has the Clintons running so fast the other way she may well revisit Togo by the time this is over. Once again, the Clinton past proves to be toxic. What she needs is a present — an emphatic now.
There are few people in public life as smart as Hillary Clinton. A conversation with her is always instructive. She's also a good person and — almost as important — she knows how to laugh. But if she is to run for president at the age of 68, she must rediscover her youth. She has to revert to the brave and inspiring woman who was the first student ever to deliver the commencement address at Wellesley College (a seven-minute ovation) and made her a national figure overnight. In other words, she has to lead.
If Joe Biden runs — he will be 73 in 2016 — he will do so as a vice president. As did George H.W. Bush, he will seek office as a continuation of the previous presidency. At the moment, Gallup gives Obama a healthy approval rating of 80 percent among Democrats. He does less well among the public at large — 44 percent in the most recent poll — but it is Democrats who vote in the Democratic caucuses and primaries. It can't hurt to be Obama's vice president.
The 2016 presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton's to lose. Already, a group called "Ready for Hillary" has raised money on her behalf. EMILY's List, the formidable organization dedicated to the election of women, has virtually endorsed her — and she has, to mangle a word, the vastest network of friends and supporters of any American politician. She can probably raise $1 billion with the snap of a finger. All she lacks is what she has always lacked — an overriding, stirring message. Lots of people are ready to march, but they need to know in what direction.
Richard Cohen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.