LITTLE ROCK — The much-improved relationship between President Obama and Bill Clinton has contributed significantly to Hillary Clinton’s perceived strength as a candidate should she choose to run for president, according to the authors of the bestselling book “Game Change,” which chronicles the 2008 presidential race.
In an interview last week with the Arkansas News Bureau in advance of an appearance at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, who have penned a follow-up book, “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” discussed the “marrying up” of Obama and the Clintons and its potential impact on the 2016 presidential race.
“Her strong position now as far and away the most likely, not just Democratic nominee but next president, to some extent derives from the coming together of her husband and President Obama,” said Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine. “If you look at all that’s happened since Election Day that had solidified her place in the party, a lot of it emanates from (the actions of) President Obama.”
The healing of wounds inflicted during the bitter primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 began soon afterward, when Obama picked her to be his first secretary of state. According to Halperin and Heilemann, friction continued between Obama and Bill Clinton, however.
“President Clinton didn’t feel he was consulted very much,” Halperin said. “(He) had a lot of ideas and wanted to convey them to the Democrat in the White House, but the calls didn’t come.”
That changed during Obama’s re-election campaign, when his team was struggling to create momentum. “Double Down” reports that one idea given serious consideration was replacing Vice President Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary Clinton.
“The vice president had many virtues, but she generated a level of excitement and enthusiasm and helped with certain kinds of voters that no one else did,” said Heilemann, national affairs editor for New York magazine.
Ultimately the idea was abandoned after polling showed it would not have an appreciable effect on Obama’s chances, but during that period “President Obama does something that he rarely does, which is he says, ‘I need help from some other human being,’ in this case Bill Clinton, and so that courtship begins,” Halperin said.
The courtship did not get off to great start, though it quickly improved.
“They have a golf match that doesn’t go particularly well, and there’s the incident in 2012 where President Clinton says the thing about Gov. (Mitt) Romney’s business record being ‘sterling.’ But for the most part, once the courtship gets under way it’s relatively smooth, and it ends up in a place that’s quite stunning from our point of view,” Halperin said.
With Obama’s blessing, Bill Clinton put his campaign skills to use in a way that he had not done since his own re-election campaign in 1996, including giving a well-received speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“That was a big moment in the restoration of Bill Clinton in the eyes of the political world,” Heinemann said. “And he certainly took a huge amount of comfort and satisfaction out of seeing President Obama, who had previously, four years earlier, kind of rejected Clintonism as a governing philosophy, suddenly running around the country talking about how similar his policies were to President Clinton’s.”
Halperin said Obama has since done a number of things that further cemented his bond with the Clintons, including appearing with Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes in January and joining the Clintons at Arlington National Cemetery last month to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. Many of Obama’s people have also publicly urged Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016, he said.
“All of that is a manifestation of the combination, as we say at the end of the book, of the two political families not only leaving Joe Biden as the odd man out, but marrying up those two political worlds structurally and thematically in a way that makes her even more formidable than she’d be on her own,” Halperin said.
Halperin and Heinemann said they believe Hillary Clinton is likely, but not certain, to run for president. If she does, she likely would win the Democratic nomination almost by acclamation, they said.
Joe Biden probably would not run if Hillary Clinton does, but if she declines he likely would run and would face a tougher primary than she would, they said.
“He wouldn’t scare anybody off,” Heinemann said.
Halperin and Heinemann also said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee should not be underestimated as a possible contender for the Republican nomination.
“Of all the people who are discussed, if you take the top 20, I think he’s amongst the most underrated,” Halperin said. “He’s got to solve the fundraising question. He’s either got to raise more than he did last time he ran and than he’s currently able to, or he’s got to find a way to run with less money than is normally thought of as what you need to run.
“But beyond that measure of fundraising, I think his name ID, his skills, his issue positioning, his temperament — I think he’d be quite formidable.”