The Washington Times

The essential question in crowded presidential fields is always this: What are you really running for? To hone your political skills and make connections for a future, serious bid for the nomination? To establish your vote-getting credibility sufficiently strongly to warrant serious consideration for the veep slot? Or, in fact, with the hope and plausible expectation of winning the nomination that year and taking your shot at the White House? 

There has never been any doubt that Hillary Clinton is running for nothing other than the 2008 Democratic party nomination for president. The scenario and her ambition were clear from the moment she announced her 2000 Senate bid, the only serious question being whether she would get her chance in 2008 or not until 2012, on account of the failure of President Bush to win a second term.

Either a two-term Bush or Gore presidency pointed to a 2008 run. Had Mr. Bush lost his reelection bid, Mrs. Clinton would have had to bide her time for four more years, to accommodate a 2008 reelection run by the Democratic incumbent. If a Democratic winner in 2004 fell to a Republican in 2008, then she would be faced with a race against an incumbent in 2012, a less advantageous scenario than any other possibility, but still the moment for her to roll the dice.

All of this was perfectly clear in 2000. She would need to win her Senate race that year and win reelection decisively in 2006. The Senate seat was a springboard to the White House, and nothing else (though of course she would need to represent New York well). The notion of Hillary Clinton settling in to serve 24 years in the Senate, as did her predecessor in the seat, the politician-intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan, verges on unimaginable. Mrs. Clinton sees herself, quite rightly, as presidential material and in the event she is unable to claim the prize, my guess is that she will seek some other outlet for her ambition than a Senate sinecure.

So about Mrs. Clinton: there is no doubt what she is up to in 2007. She expects to be inaugurated the 44th president of the United States in 2009. But about Sen. Barack Obama, one could not be so sure. Until, perhaps, last week.

Mr. Obama’s entry into the contest for the nomination has set off the most spectacular political swoon I have ever seen or, for that matter, read of in American politics, JFK included. You might have to reach back to Alcibiades in ancient Athens to find something comparable. Mr. Obama instantly set hearts aflutter and passions soaring among Democrats (and many independents and even a few Republicans).

But really, what chance would a man elected to the Senate in 2004, with no previous national political experience and no executive experience in a governor’s mansion either, have for the nomination of his party in 2008? In ordinary circumstances, one would have to say very little. Which in turn would raise the question of what he might be running for if not the 2008 nomination.

And, as noted above, there would be perfectly plausible answers: to gain experience, make connections, learn how to manage the national press corps, build a fund-raising base, perhaps have a shot at the vice presidency.

To achieve such aims, what he might be expected to do above all would be to avoid directly challenging the front-runner. Oh, disagreement here and there would be essential, but throughout, the emphasis would be on Dale Carnegie-style making friends and influencing people with a view to a harder fought, deadly serious contest four or eight years later. Of course, if circumstances develop such that you have a chance to go in late for the kill and win, then you take your shot, as the pleasantly surprised Bill Clinton did in 1992, but even here your pounce emerges in the context of the Mr. Nice Guy image you have cultivated.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s team made it pretty clear that that’s not, after all, the plan. The exchange of fire of the Obama and Clinton campaigns over erstwhile Clinton supporter and now Obama funder David Geffen’s extravagant dis of Mrs. Clinton was an indication that the Obama team is playing to win, and that they understand the only way to do that is to beat Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign invited Mr. Obama to repudiate Mr. Geffen’s inflammatory comments (and give back his money, which was stupid), and thus be a good little follower in the footsteps of the frontrunner. The Obama campaign instead fired a mighty volley back, declining the Clinton offer to treat the New York senator as anything other than chief rival for the nomination.

Charisma got Mr. Obama into the game, but that won’t get him the nomination. He didn’t have to try to take down Mrs. Clinton. He could have chosen to view his political future as a longer-term project. That would have been fine with Mrs. Clinton. But it looks like Mr. Obama really wants to be the 2008 Democratic nominee. Which in turn means she has to beat him.