Why Hillary can’t wait forever to make up her mind on 2016

January 30, 2013

In a slew of interviews over the past 24 hours, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made one thing very clear: She's not thinking about whether or not to run for president in 2016.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo by Reuters

“I’m not thinking about anything like that right now,” Clinton said in response to a question asked during an online question and answer session at the Newseum Tuesday. “I am looking forward to finishing up my tenure as secretary of state and then catching up on about 20 years of sleep deprivation.”

It's, of course, understandable that Clinton would like some rest and relaxation after  living for more than two decades in the white-hot national spotlight.  (Think about it: Clinton has been one of the most high-profile figures in America from 1992 until now. That's a pretty amazing run.)

Political reality, however, means that Clinton likely won't have as much time to luxuriate in not working -- and not thinking about whether she wants to run in 2016 -- as she might want.

Here's why. Clinton is the first domino to fall on the 2016 board. She is the prime mover.

People like Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley will almost certainly hold off making their plans plain until Clinton says something definitive about her interest (or lack thereof) in the 2016 contest. (O'Malley seems the most likely of that group to run regardless of what Clinton does since he is term-limited out of office in 2014.)

What all of those candidates know is that for a majority of Democratic activists and, more importantly, major donors, the race for president in 2016 won't start until Clinton makes clear what she's doing. Every -- literally every -- conversation that O'Malley or Cuomo has with a major giver would begin with this question: "Do you know what Hillary is doing?"

That reality makes it impossible for any of the potential Democratic candidates not named Clinton to build the sort of national financial and organizational structure they will need until we know whether Clinton is in or out.

Clinton knows that she is currently freezing the field with the-door-remains-slightly-open statements like "I have no intention" of running for president. Having no intention of running is not even close to the same thing as ruling out the race.  Words matter in politics and no one understands just how much better than Clinton.

She also knows that her ability to keep the race frozen in place has a shelf life and if she waits too long to decide she will lose a fair amount of the political goodwill she has built up in the party.

So, when does Clinton need to make a declarative pronouncement about her plans? It's hard to pinpoint a particular date but it's hard to imagine her being able to wait much beyond the 2014 midterm elections. At that point, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries will be slightly more than a year(!) away, and the other men and women who want to run will be itchy to get the Clinton question answered. (For everyone not named Clinton, the sooner she makes up her mind, the better.)

Clinton has some time to decide if she wants to make one more run or stay on the sidelines. But, it's far less time than you might think.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | January 30, 2013