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Hillary Clinton: 1-Term President?

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(The Root) — There are only two sure things about the next presidential election: Hillary Clinton isn't sure she wants to run for president again, and plenty of people are sure they want her to. According to a poll released shortly after this year's presidential election, Clinton would blow any competition out of the water in the all-important first primary contest in Iowa, with a staggering 58 percent of the vote.


So why wouldn't she run? Well, actually, she has several good reasons not to. The first is the one she and her husband repeat most often: namely, that after 20 years in the public eye in one grueling role after another — from first lady to U.S. senator to presidential candidate to secretary of state — she actually wants to do things like sleep.

Who can blame her? When you compare her life of dodging one diplomatic crisis after another with her husband's life — filled with high-paying speeches and the occasional TV interview — whose life sounds like more fun? Then there are the more practical considerations.


She will be 69 in four years, and 73 in eight. Though President Reagan was 69 when he took office, it is still an age that may raise eyebrows among some — including some voters who may not be willing to admit that they view an older woman in more judgmental terms than they do an older man.

But perhaps most important of all, the chances that any party will hold on to the White House for a full 16 years are low. This means that if Clinton runs for president in 2016, she'll be running with the knowledge that thanks to eight years of Barack Obama, the likelihood of her being re-elected to a second term as president, should she win, is reduced.

So what if Clinton did the unthinkable? What if she announced that she will run for president in 2016, but only for one term?

The Appeal of One Term

The idea is not entirely laughable, at least not according to various political consultants.


"It's a great question," said Michael Goldman, a Boston-based political consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Paul Tsongas. "Because there is a sense that if you're really free, you could do everything." Goldman was referring to the "freedom" a president might exhibit in his or her decision-making if he or she is not worried about winning re-election.

Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist who was an aide to then-Sen. Clinton, said, "Hillary will get voters based on who she is and her qualifications, regardless of how many terms she wants to run for." He added, "I think, for the average voter, hearing a candidate come out and say they 'don't care about re-election' and therefore will spend every day of their term doing something that sticks to their moral compass … most voters want that and want a leader who exhibits that kind of fearlessness."


But a one-term pledge "will make it tough to govern," he also said.

This sentiment was shared by others.

"As a campaign strategy, it can be beneficial by making the candidate appear more selfless and willing to do what's right regardless of the politics," said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Wesley Clark. "It's a campaign tactic that could be beneficial in the short term, but it would make life harder governing in the long term."


The Plight of the Lame Duck

Cary Covington, an associate professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in presidential politics and Congress, explained that making a one-term pledge "basically undercuts a lot of a president's political leverage. In negotiations with interest groups or Congress, there is an extended timeline where a president can say, 'I need your help now, and I will be there to help you down the road. Or, if you don’t help me now, I can make you pay later.' If they promise one term, they are undermining a lot of their bargaining power."


Goldman summarized the one-term-pledge dilemma this way: "People think you will be able to be fearless and won't make decisions [based on worries about] re-election. But the problem is that the people you work with [in Congress] don't have that luxury." Goldman explained that there would be members of the Senate and the House who, worried about their own re-elections, might be less inclined to cooperate with a president already on his or her way out the door shortly after being elected.

Basically, a president who makes a one-term pledge becomes a lame duck the day he or she is sworn into office. I like to say, "You're never as strong as when you're running for re-election, and you're never as weak as when you win it," Goldman said. "The day Obama lost power is the day he won re-election." Goldman explained that plenty of policy foes may know they cannot wait a full eight years for a regime change in order to get their way, but they know they can probably wait two to four years.


Smikle noted that these foes might not just be from the opposing party, either. "Every Democrat may not stand behind [a Democratic president]," he said, and not just because they are worried about their own re-election. "Some may essentially begin running to replace you as president the day you take office, since they know you are only planning to be there one term."

Simmons concurred, noting, "There's a reason you hear this one-term idea floated during campaigns. Campaign strategists talk about saying that all the time, but the people who are actually responsible for helping the person govern shoot it down."


The Reality of the Campaign

In part because of concerns about his age and previous health struggles, Sen. John McCain was forced to issue an on-the-record denial that he was considering a one-term pledge during his last run for the presidency. (He was 72 at the time and had battled skin cancer.)


There was some mild speculation that the last Republican nominee, Gov. Mitt Romney, was mulling a one-term pledge after his campaign manager compared a possible Romney presidency to that of one-term President James K. Polk.

(In an emailed statement to The Root, former Romney-campaign senior adviser Kevin Madden wrote of the so-called one-term pledge: "It's a gimmick that the media loves and that pundits who've never once set foot inside a campaign headquarters obsess over, but it's still just a gimmick. Running for president requires a candidate to have a long-term vision for the country. That's what makes a one-term pledge seem so unserious to me. Strategically, you also invite an avalanche of speculation about your nominee for vice president and a succession plan even before you've been elected, which is just an added layer of distractions to any argument you can make about the viability and importance of a first term.")


But one point the Democratic consultants interviewed seem to agree on is that Hillary Clinton is an exceptional case, with exceptional name recognition and exceptional qualifications. With few other Democratic women considered as viable for the presidency in the near future as she is likely to be, Clinton's desire for sleep, relaxation and normalcy may be trumped by the desire of women — particularly fellow feminists — to finally break America's ultimate glass ceiling. And as polling indicates, Clinton is the woman best positioned to do it in four years.

Perhaps serving one term would represent the ideal compromise: Women get their history-maker, and Clinton gets her life back in four years rather than eight. But according to the experts, this is a possible recipe for positioning Clinton to be a successful presidential candidate — not, ultimately, a successful president.


Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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