The Democratic Party never
OBAMA MAY HAVE BEEN a buckraking messiah, but he was all too aware that he was still just a freshman and therefore at the beck and call of his party's leadership. So when he was summoned one day in July to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office without the slightest explanation why, he promptly hoofed it over there, remarking to Gibbs on his way out the door, "I wonder what we screwed up."
Obama's relationship with the leader was cordial enough, but it was hardly warm or close. Now he found himself sitting in the chair across from Reid in his quarters in the Capitol. From the wall above Reid's desk, the impassive visage of Samuel Clemens, rendered in a giant oil painting, mutely observed the proceedings. At sixty-six, Reid was a little more than twenty years older than Obama, but in terms of style and demeanor, the generation gap between them seemed much wider. Awkward and halting, vaguely archaic, Reid didn't like wasting words or time. On his mind today was Obama's future in the Senate -- and he got right to the point.
"You're not going to go anyplace here," Reid declared soon after Obama took his seat. "I know that you don't like it, doing what you're doing."
In observing Obama for the past year and a half, Reid had sensed his frustration and impatience, had heard rumblings that Obama was already angling to head back home and take a shot at the Illinois governorship. Reid had no idea if it was true, but he knew this much: Obama simply wasn't cut out to be a Senate lifer.
As Obama listened to the senior senator from Nevada, he wasn't sure where the old man was going. But then Reid's disquisition took an unexpected turn, surprising Obama in both its bluntness and adamancy.
Twenty minutes later, the meeting was over, and Obama headed back to his warren in the Hart building. He breezed through the lobby, down the hall, and into Gibb's office, closing the door behind him.
"So," asked Gibbs from behind his desk, "what did we fuck up?"
"Nothing," Obama replied, "Harry wants me to run for president."
"That whole meeting was about you running for president?"
"Yeah," Obama said, then grinned. "He really wants me to run for president."
HARRY REID WASN'T ALONE among Senate Democrats in the dawning desire to see Obama chuck his hat into the ring. Although Clinton hadn't yet formally declared her intention to enter the race, in political circles it was seen as a foregone conclusion, as was her status as the heir apparent, the prohibitive front-runner-in-waiting. And that was making many Democrats distinctly nervous in the summer of 2006.
The reasons for their unease were many. In her first term in the Senate, Hillary had built a record of bipartisan accomplishment and a wealth of expertise on matters of policy; she had earned a reputation, in the lingo of the Senate, as "a workhorse and not a show horse." But polling revealed that her negative ratings were perilously high across the country, and especially outside the bluest states. She remained, as ever, a polarizing creature, one who would widen the chasmal partisan divide that opened up during her husband's two White House terms and only deepened in those of his successor. Her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War made her as toxic to some on the left as she was on the right. Democrats feared she might be unelectable in the best of circumstances -- and not merely unelectable, but a catastrophe for the party, her presence atop the ticket hobbling House and Senate Democrats in red and purple states across the board.
And then there was the other thing, which threatened to create something closer to the worst of circumstances. The other thing was Bill -- more specifically his personal life, about which rumors were running rampant. Not since the Lewinsky era had they been more pervasive, the topic of tittering in every quadrant of the Democratic Establishment from New York to Boston to Los Angeles. And nowhere was the scuttlebutt flowing more freely than in Washington.
Over lunch one afternoon that summer with a Democratic senator to whom he was close, John McCain exclaimed, "What's Clinton doing to Hillary?" McCain was friendly with the Clintons. He meant them no injury, But for his across-the-aisle colleague, the conversation threw into sharp relief the nightmare scenario that was causing so many Democrats such angst: that Hillary would skate to the Democratic nomination -- and then be destroyed in the general election when Republicans peddled the details of her husband's reputed dalliances to the press, One party elder described the situation thus: "It's like some Japanese epic film where everyone sees the disaster coming in the third reel, but no one can figure out what to do about it."
Reid was well aware that such thoughts were rippling through the Democratic caucus. In truth, he shared them. After the aching disappointments of 2000 and 2004, and after the depredations Democrats believed Bush had inflicted on the country, the sense of urgency about taking back the White House was bordering on manic. The obvious answer was to find a plausible challenger to Clinton -- someone who wouldn't weigh down the rest of the party's candidates, even if he were defeated in the general election.
The problem was that none of the Democrats contemplating a bid fit the bill. Edwards was regarded as a shallow, callow contender by virtually everyone of his former colleagues. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Evan Bayh were fine senators, but all would be crushed by Clinton. Ditto Bill Richardson, Mark Warner, and Tom Vilsack. John Kerry was saddled with more baggage than a curbside porter at Dulles airport. Only Al Gore, rejuvenated by his fiery opposition to Bush on the war and his celebrated climate change crusade, seemed to have what it took to make a credible run at Clinton. But Gore evinced almost zero interest in climbing back into the ring.
The pickings, in other words, were mighty slim-except for Obama.
Years later, Reid would claim that he was steadfastly neutral in the 2008 race; that he never chose sides between Barack and Hillary; that all he did was tell Obama that "he could be president," that "the stars could align for him." But at the time, in truth, his encouragement of Obama was unequivocal, He was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he later put it privately.
Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama's race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination, He argued that Obama's lack of experience might not be crippling; it might actually be an asset, allowing him to cast himself as a figure uncorrupted and unco-opted by evil Washington, without the burdens of countless Senate votes and floor speeches. And, unlike Clinton, Obama had come out forcefully and early against Bush's Iraq incursion; in 2002, while he was still a state senator, he'd given a heralded speech in which he said, "I don't oppose all wars.... What I am opposed to is a dumb war." Reid wasn't sure Obama could defeat Clinton. Probably he couldn't. But he was the only person in the party who stood a fighting chance -- the best available alternative.
Obama had heard these arguments before from other senators. His friend and Illinois counterpart, Dick Durbin, was urging him to run, but that was to be expected. More intriguing were the entreaties he was receiving from New York's Chuck Schumer. Schumer's relationship with Hillary had always been fraught with rivalry and tinged with jealousy; though she was technically the junior member of the New York team in the Senate, she had eclipsed him in terms of celebrity and influence from the moment she arrived on the Hill. By 2006, they had found their way to a mostly peaceful coexistence. Yet because of the circles in which he traveled, Schumer was more familiar than most with the tittle-tattle about her husband's alleged infidelities. He heard people debating what Hillary should do, to preserve her political viability when the scandal inevitably broke: Divorce Bill or ride it out (again)?
Schumer was also the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and, in that role, had seen Obama's efforts up close on behalf of the party's candidates. He was blown away by Obama's fund-raising prowess and the enthusiasm he generated in states traditionally inhospitable to Democrats. The political handicapper in Schumer was fascinated by Obama's potential to redraw the electoral map, a capacity Clinton surely lacked. In conversations with other senators and strategists in 2006, Schumer would make these points over and over. He made them to Obama as well, and repeatedly; in one instance Schumer even double-teamed him with Reid. Although Schumer was careful to signal that home-state decorum would prohibit him from opposing Clinton publicly -- "You understand my position, he would say -- he left no doubt as to where his head and heart were on the question.
These were not the only senatorial voices importuning Obama. Daschle, too, was on the case, and so was a coterie of senators close to him, including Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Florida, Barbara Boxer of California, and even Ted Kennedy -- all were nudging Obama to take the plunge, Their conversations with Barack were surreptitious, a conspiracy of whispers, They told him that 2008 was going to be a change election and that he uniquely could embody transformation. They told him he might never get a better chance. They told him this could be his time.
But they also added the same caveats as Schumer. Keen as they were for Obama to run, they would never be able to bless him with an early endorsement. Coming out against Hillary would pose grave risks. The Clintons had long memories and a vindictive streak ten miles wide. If Hillary prevailed, they feared -- no, they were certain -- there would be retribution down the line. But they would root for Obama secretly, doing whatever they could to help without affronting the aborning Democratic dynasty.
IT WOULD BE MANY months before the Clintons gained any awareness of the incipient betrayal of Hillary by her colleagues in the Senate. And then it would hit them like a ton of bricks in their psychic solar plexus, The Clintons saw themselves as the party's de facto First Family. As the patrons of two generations of Democratic politicians for whom they'd raised stacks of cash, providing aid and comfort on the path to prominence. As the only Democrats in recent memory who had demonstrated a consistent capacity to win national elections. As revered and beloved figures, they were blind to the degree of Clinton fatigue in their world and deaf to the conspiracy of whispers. They had no idea how fast the ground was shifting beneath their feet.
And neither, really, did Obama -- until his conversation with Reid.
Like everyone else in Washington, Obama took as a given the fearsome potency of the Clinton machine. Despite all the exhortations to take on Hillary, there were many reasons to believe that such an enterprise would be pure folly. That she was unstoppable, a juggernaut.
But Obama had to wonder. Schumer, Dorgan, Durbin, and now Reid -- these four men comprised the upper echelon of the official Democratic leadership in the Senate. Maybe the Establishment wasn't as foursquare behind the Clintons as conventional wisdom held. Maybe there was an opening.
A few days after his meeting with Reid, Obama was telling Jarrett about what had happened in the leader's office.
She listened to Obama's description of the Reid meeting and was impressed. But Jarrett wanted to know what it meant in concrete terms, "Is he going to endorse you and support you?" No, Obama answered.
"So what good is it for him to tell you that you should run if he's not going to help you?"
"He just thinks that I should do it, but he doesn't want to cross Senator Clinton," Obama replied, "He thinks I can win."
Besides Michelle, Jarrett knew Barack Obama as well as anyone. She had watched him for months as he began to wrestle with the idea of running for president. For the first time, she could see him thinking, Maybe I can do this.