The Democratic primary race is still in full swing. But by the end of August, one candidate will be setting their eyes on the November general election, and the other will have to decide how their political career continues. Both Clinton and Obama have a few years left in their Senate terms; if they want it, they have a ready-made platform to use as a launching point for another run at the White House in 2012. But what happens on November 5th, 2008, as the loosing Democratic nominee takes a look at the shape of things for the next four years?
The first scenario to tackle is the one that Democrats least want to consider: John McCain captures the general election. If McCain is elected, both Obama and Clinton might see 2012 as their time to strike. Even if McCain were to perform well in office, by 2012 he’ll be 76, and health issues could easily prevent him from seeking a second term. Any McCain win in 08 will likely be narrow, and the Democrats will see an opportunity for an opening at the end of his first term. Look for a repeat of the 08 election; neither Clinton nor Obama is likely to give up their shot at the White House in the meantime. Obama will need to worry about his ability to recapture the momentum and effervescence that has characterized his candidacy to date; Clinton will have to find a way to re-tool her image and message in order to take a decisive win in the primary race. In this scenario, being the nominee in this years election is more or a handicap than a benefit. Obama would need to spend the next four years taking visible leadership roles on Senate issues to put to rest doubts about his achievements and leadership. Clinton would face a much harder task, needing to create new momentum and check her hawkish image with voters- there’s no way that she, or any other Democrat, could out-hawk McCain’s “perpetual war” stance while still keeping hold of Democratic voters.
If Obama or Clinton take the White House, I look for their rival to sit out the 2012 election. With a Democrat in the Oval Office, it will be much less appealing to either of them to join the field. A good performance by the Democratic president would cinch the nomination almost automatically. Poor performance would mean that a Republican would be more likely to take office, no matter who is running from the other side of the aisle. Both Obama and Clinton are savvy enough to avoid such a trap, and would focus instead on retaining their senate positions and rebuilding their campaigns for another run in 2o16.
What happens if Hillary Clinton takes the White House? One appealing prospect for Obama- and perhaps for Clinton as well- would be a cabinet position. Four or eight years removed from re-election concerns, and safely away from the Senate compromise votes that haunted John Kerry, a promised cabinet position would be an excellent way to bring together a Democratic party split over the nomination battle. Several years in the cabinet could put to rest for Obama any concerns about his age or experience. Having a dynamic future candidate in the cabinet could allow Clinton to name an older or less electable vice president without the need to worry about the party’s future in 2016.
Clinton, I think, would be less likely to accept such a deal; for her, a loss in August most likely means one thing only: the beginning of the next campaign. She’ll skip the 2012 presidential season and opt instead to retain her senate seat, and look towards 2016. In the meantime, she’ll work with the Democratic party to try and strengthen the party’s structure and organization to provide better support for the eventual nominee in 2016.
Obama was quick to realize after the previous convention that he was the man of the moment, and will be unwilling to turn loose of that momentum, no matter what the result in 2008. Meanwhile, Clinton is unlikely to waver in her ambition to become the first female president. Win or loose in August, look for both candidates to be back with gusto in 2012 or 2016.