Hillary, hunkering down

While watching the second presidential debate the other night between Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), I couldn't help wondering about another Senate colleague who was surely watching somewhere. What was Hillary Clinton thinking?

Three weeks from next Tuesday, Clinton (D-N.Y.) begins her new life. Should McCain pull out a surprise upset and win, then the subterranean campaign she has been running since June can come out into the open. Who among Democrats would ever be ready to take her on in the race for 2012, and who would dare try? Yet if McCain should go down in defeat, along with Clinton's prospects for the presidency in 2012, then it will be time for Plan B. Healthcare reform is the obvious next fight, but Clinton never wanted to hunker down for a life in the Senate — will she now?

Watching Obama skillfully debate McCain, for a second time, must have made Clinton burn. Obama has her to thank for his new talent, honed after mostly losing to Clinton in 20 primary debates. The presidency, once inevitably Clinton’s, is now within reach of the junior senator from Illinois who has not even served one term and who has yet to come up with a good answer for William Ayers, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Tony Rezko. It seems he may never have to.

For Clinton, whose campaign had leased its headquarters in Ballston, Va., through March 31, 2009, an Obama victory will slam the door on a longstanding dream of becoming the first female president. Running in 2016 is of course an option, but she knows the Republicans will likely be favored by then.

Obama's ability to hold his own with McCain — after both Clintons told Democrats he wouldn't be able to beat him — isn't the only surprise Clinton has been confronted with since conceding the race on June 7. There is, of course, the emergence of Gov. Sarah Palin. While Palin's readiness to step in to the presidency may be in question, there is no question that she is a star and she isn't going away.

In his Washington Post column this week, Richard Cohen wrote that Palin has been spared the “scorn, approbation and ridicule that would have descended on Clinton,” should she have made any of the number of mistakes Palin has made, told similar untruths or ever dared to be so informal.

“Can you imagine the reaction of the press corps if Clinton had given the audience a hi-ya-sailor wink? Can you imagine the feverish blogging across the political spectrum if Clinton had claimed credit for stopping a bridge that, in fact, had set her heart aflutter? What if she showed she didn't know squat about the Constitution, if she could not tell Katie Couric what newspapers or magazines she reads or if she claimed intimacy with foreign relations based on sighting Russia through binoculars?” Cohen asked.

And what if Palin, not Clinton, becomes the first female president?