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Hillary Clinton leaves D.C. well-positioned for 2016

ElectionsHillary ClintonBarack ObamaExecutive BranchRepublican PartyMartin O'Malley

Many Republicans and some conservative Democratic legislators in Annapolis believe the Maryland General Assembly has become a proving ground for the presidential ambitions of Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The governor's critics believe that by pushing issues such as gun control, alternative energy, death penalty repeal and other progressive touchstone issues, he is trying to build street cred among the liberal voters who dominate the Democratic presidential primary process.

Well, the critics are probably right. But all this speculation as to Governor O'Malley's plans seems premature, as it ignores one larger, salient, game-changing question:

What is Hillary Rodham Clinton going to do?

Mrs. Clinton, who is finishing up her stint as secretary of state, has been coy as to her plans. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 67 percent of Americans view Mrs. Clinton favorably, and only 26 percent do not. By comparison, Vice President Joe Biden's favorable/unfavorable ratio is 48 percent to 37 percent.

On Election Day 2016, she will be 69 years old — the same age Ronald Reagan was when he was first elected president.

Compared to other potential presidential contenders, Mrs. Clinton leaves the State Department in a unique position. She is a national and international figure with a singular mix of policymaking experience and expertise earned through her time as first lady, as a United States senator from New York, and as the nation's top diplomat.

Moreover, if the polls are any indication, her service as secretary of state has softened her once sharply partisan image, making her a less polarizing figure. The Hillary Clinton of the 1990s — veteran of the health care debacle, Whitewater scandal figure, and critic of the "vast right wing conspiracy" — has been largely left behind.

Looking at 2016, Hillary Clinton the retired diplomat reminds me of Dwight Eisenhower the retired general in 1952.

Like Eisenhower, Mrs. Clinton alone seems to have the stature, experience and standing to steamroll her way to her party's nomination. It's hard to imagine Martin O'Malley (who supported Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008), Andrew Cuomo (who served in her husband's administration) or even Joe Biden challenging — much less defeating — her.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that the Benghazi, Libya consulate attacks will result in lasting damage to Mrs. Clinton's viability. Senate Republicans attempted to do just that during Mrs. Clinton's contentious appearance last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the savvy Mrs. Clinton deftly handled her inquisitors, coming across as sympathetic and statesman-like in a highly partisan atmosphere.

Benghazi will remain part of Mrs. Clinton's narrative. Ultimately, however, the American people will probably give her more credit for falling on her sword and accepting responsibility for Benghazi than outright blame.

If she wants it, Hillary Clinton is the clear favorite for her party's nomination. But, of course, Mrs. Clinton has been in this position before.

In 2008, her sure-thing candidacy was derailed by upstart Barack Obama. Mr. Obama's charisma, a perceived passion gap between Clinton and Obama supporters, and tactical errors on the part of her campaign certainly contributed to Mrs. Clinton's loss. But so did the eccentricities of the Democratic nominating process.

While hierarchical Republicans usually nominate the next candidate in the queue, Democratic primary voters sometimes swoon over the political flavor of the moment, sending perceived or nominal frontrunners home disappointed. In 2008, Hillary Clinton learned this lesson the hard way. So did Edmund Muskie (1972) and Jerry Brown (1976).

Still, if she runs, it is unlikely that Mrs. Clinton's campaign — which ignored caucuses and focused on primaries in larger, delegate-rich states — will make the same mistakes it did in 2008.

Further, by cashing out of the Obama administration now, Mrs. Clinton inoculates herself from political fallout in the event that President Obama succumbs to the same second-term jinx experienced by other re-elected presidents. In effect, she banks her popularity, name recognition and good will, leaving the nastiness of the political fray to others for the next couple of years.

So, it really is pointless to speculate about the political aspirations of Governor O'Malley or anyone else until the party's preeminent figure (other than President Obama) decides what she wants to do.

We will know soon enough whether another Clinton comeback is coming. Meanwhile, let's hope that legislators in Annapolis focus on good policy and not speculative plans.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a Republican former Capitol Hill press secretary, communications director and gubernatorial speechwriter. He blogs at rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His email is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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