As 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton joined her party's push to survive the challenges it faces in the midterm congressional elections tomorrow, she took a page from the comeback playbook of another one-time presidential loser: Richard Nixon in 1966.
In that midterm year, rather than just licking his wounds from his 1960 defeat by John Kennedy and another loss in the 1962 race for California governor, Nixon hit the midterm trail on behalf of Republican candidates in 86 congressional districts in 35 states, disavowing plans of another presidential run as he went his way.
In all, 59 of them won, enabling Nixon to collect political chips for effort and loyalty and setting the stage for a yet-to-be perceived comeback. After his 1962 loss, he had famously promised in his "last press conference" that the press would not "have Nixon to kick around anymore." But his 1966 midterm successes, along with an unexpected boost from President Lyndon Johnson, accusing him of imperiling peace in Vietnam "in the hope that he can pick up a precinct or two, or a ward of two," made Nixon a hero. As the architect of the off-year GOP victories, he went on to the White House two years later.
Like Nixon in 1966-68, Hillary Clinton has worked her way back from her 2008 defeat for the Democratic nomination by Barack Obama. In the remaining days of the 2014 midterms, she beat the bushes as a loyal Democrat, while retaining what seems increasingly a fiction of not being a presidential candidate. She already has a huge advantage in the absence of any prospective Democratic challenger other than Vice President Joe Biden, who might well shy away from the starting gate in light of early "Ready for Hillary" enthusiasm.
Nixon, after the resounding defeat of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, had played coy, persuading other potential GOP White House aspirants to declare a moratorium on presidential politics for a while. Then he worked the midterm campaign trail diligently in 1966, and by the time they awoke to what he was doing on his personal comeback trail, the horse was in the barn with Dick Nixon aboard and firmly holding the reins.
Nixon also had the good fortune in late 1967 that the candidacy of early frontrunner, Gov. George Romney of Michigan, imploded even before the first GOP primary in New Hampshire. It happened in part due to his confession of taking "a brainwashing" from the American generals in Vietnam, and his inability to come up with a credible strategy to end the war there. Nixon benefited too in 1968 from rival Nelson Rockefeller's indecisive flirtations with a challenge to him, leading to Nixon's easy first-ballot nomination.
At this comparable stage, Hillary Clinton appears poised to make the most of Nixon's pre-1968 strategy as she strives to solidify her own comeback after a very close loss in the 2008 primaries against a surprisingly formidable Mr. Obama, on the verge of a historic political breakthrough in the nation's racial relations.
Party loyalist Joe Biden, for all his popularity in the Democratic ranks, may well in the end stay out of the starting gate in 2016, and no other Democrat has as yet emerged as a serious alternative to Ms. Clinton. Many party liberals have stars in their eyes for freshman Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but she repeatedly avows that she is not a candidate (present tense noted) as she says she is supporting Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile the former first lady who voted as a senator for the George W. Bush resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq continues to present herself as wiser now on that matter.
By very publicly hitting the midterm campaign trail for her party, Ms. Clinton has just about erased any public doubts about her intention to follow Mr. Bush's successful route to the White House, as Nixon did before her. But her chances of matching Nixon's record of winning congressional districts 48 years ago is unlikely. All she needs to show now, however, is that she's a team player — for this time around anyway.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.