By Toby Harnden
Barack Obama’s favourite movie is The Godfather. He once said of his aide Robert Gibbs that “I’ve seen a little bit of Sonny in him once in a while”, referring to the most violent and unstable of Don Corleone’s sons. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once sent a dead fish to a pollster who had disappointed him.
But Obama himself, with his cooler-than-thou mien and disdain for the transactional nature of governing, is an unlikely Family head. He is from Al Capone’s Chicago but somehow not of it. For that aspect of politics, no one does it better than the Clintons.
Doug Band, Bill Clinton’s right-hand man, is said to keep a list on his BlackBerry of people who are “dead to us” because they dared to cross the Clintons in the 2008 campaign. Back then, Bill Richardson, a second-rate former cabinet secretary, endorsed Obama after initially promising fealty to the Clintons, to whom he owed his career, during a Super Bowl game.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager, James Carville, immediately denounced Richardson as a Judas Iscariot who had betrayed the Clintons in return for Obama’s 30 pieces of silver. Richardson’s career was essentially over. Carville, like the Clintons, has never taken prisoners. One of his campaign adages is: “When your opponent is drowning, throw the son of a bitch an anvil.” And Emanuel was with the Clintons long before Obama appeared on the scene.
All this is worth remembering now that Hillary Clinton is preparing for a 2016 presidential bid. Sure, she could opt to spend more time with her family or baking cookies, but no one close to the Clinton political family believes she won’t run. It would be like Don Corleone retiring to an allotment.
While Hillary is temporarily absent from the fray, Clinton loyalists have set up a Ready for Hillary super-Pac (political action committee) on her behalf — legally, she cannot associate with them. It’s a clever move. The group has been busy signing up top Democratic donors and enlisting the best operatives.
As well as Carville, backers include former Clinton capos Thomas “Mack” McLarty, Harold Ickes and Ann Lewis. It’s also been an opportunity for some to make amends. A prominent supporter has been Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, an Obamaite in 2008 who was on the “dead to us” list after saying Bill Clinton was “a great leader but I don’t want my daughter near him”. On Friday she was at a “Madam President” event in Iowa saying she was dreaming of Hillary’s “moment”.
The first casualty of the Ready for Hillary effort appears to have been Vice-President Joe Biden. Old Joe (his teeth and hair are considerably younger but he turned 70 last year) had reckoned, as the incumbent vice-president, that he had a strong claim to be the next Democratic nominee. That was before his 2008 pollster Celinda Lake signed up with Ready for Hillary and the top two grassroots organisers for the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign went to work for the outfit.
Now, Biden is intimating he won’t run if Hillary does. Other potential Democratic rivals are also withering on the vine. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, another former Clinton cabinet secretary, is likely to sit out 2016. So, too, is Newark mayor Cory Booker, sometimes described as America’s second black president. It looks as if the field is clear for Hillary.
Usually it is the Republicans who plump for the previous runner-up — Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney last year. This time, they look set for a bloody, chaotic campaign. New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky are already tearing lumps out of each other while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, former Romney running mate Paul Ryan and George W. Bush’s younger brother Jeb are biding their time for now.
Ironically, Obama’s 2008 win has persuaded other newly elected Republican senators that they too could be commander-in-chief. It may well be, however, that after choosing an untested Obama in 2008, America will be looking for a known quantity next time. Hillary’s campaign will be framed as a historic one to elect the first female president. Just as Republicans have found it hard to attack Obama without appearing racist, running against Hillary means the cry of sexism is never far away.
For more than a decade, she has been shedding her old image as a radical Lady Macbeth and crafting a centrist reputation. McCain recently described her as a “rock star” who did a “fine job” at the state department. An easy primary campaign would mean she could resist moving to the left while watching Republicans having to pander to their conservative base.
Obama emerged stronger from his epic 2008 primary battle with Hillary, but that was the exception and, unlike the Republicans now, the ideological differences between the two were minimal.
At 65, Hillary could be almost a generation older than a Republican opponent.
Attacking a woman on age grounds, however, could appear distinctly unchivalrous and while the hefty, trash- talking Christie is often portrayed as a Sopranos character, few Mob aficionados would bet on a Soprano against a Corleone.
The Clintons are making it plain they will not tolerate anyone messing this up for them. Anthony Weiner, the weasel-faced New York mayoral candidate, is already in trouble for disrespecting his wife Huma Abedin, Hillary’s senior aide and a beloved sister in the Clinton world.
After the latest revelations of his sexts to a young woman, it was made known the Clintons were displeased. Aides leaked that Philippe Reines, Hillary’s consigliere, had launched an expletive- laced tirade against Weiner during a conference call, threatening to “pull out” his throat. When Abedin visited Doug Band at his apartment, Weiner was ordered to wait outside while his wife took their son in.
The comic drama of the Weiner campaign, not to mention the inevitable dragging up of Bill’s Monica Lewinsky escapade in the 1990s, has given Republicans hope that the new, shiny Clinton brand can be tarnished again. If Weiner should win the New York mayoral primary next month, expect to hear of his body floating in the Hudson shortly afterwards.