WASHINGTON — There's a sound of desperation coming out of the Democratic camp these days. That's what we must call it when some prominent Democrats are saying, in effect, that the current crop of Democratic presidential possibilities can't beat George W. Bush in 2004 and they would like to have Republican John McCain as their candidate.
It's a rather silly wish. Senator McCain is prolife, supports school vouchers, favors national missile defense, and backs a private-investment option for Social Security, and much more that shows he may be an attractive independent thinker but no Democrat.
Still, in the year leading up to the 1992 presidential race there also was that note of Democratic desperation in the air. Nobody thought he or she could beat President Bush, particularly after his popularity ratings shot up after the Gulf War. The leading Democratic possibility, Mario Cuomo, said he wasn't interested in running. So did several others, like Richard Gephardt and Tom Foley.
But Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton hung in there. The word I got from Mr. Clinton's longtime friend and adviser, former Democratic national chairman John White, was that Clinton had decided to make the run because even if he lost, he would put himself in a position to be the candidate four years later.
Well, as we all know, it worked out better than Clinton expected.
So my guess is that another Clinton the senator from New York, who was so much a part of that 1992 campaign is remembering all this. I won't be surprised at all if she jumps into a race that will be looked upon in advance as a "no win" for any Democratic contender.
Yes, Mrs. Clinton has said she won't run for president in '04. But Bill told voters he would stay in his governorship for the full term and didn't. So I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary follows a similar course.
How strong a candidate would Senator Clinton be? I checked with pollster John Zogby and he fortified with facts my guess that she could become a strong candidate. He said that in his polling of possible Democrats, including former Vice President Gore, Sen. John Edwards, Sen. Evan Bayh, Rep. Dick Gephardt, and Sen. John Kerry, among others, Clinton "always finishes a strong second to Gore."
"But aren't there so many Clinton 'haters' out there who would almost make her victory an impossibility?" I asked Mr. Zogby. He said that what he called Mrs. Clinton's "strong negatives" were up to 46 percent during her race for senator a race that she won. Now, he said, because of her performance in office, her negatives are "down in the mid-30s."
Zogby said it was among the "mushy middle" of negative voters that Mrs. Clinton has picked up supporters by doing what they see as a good job. He said the rest of the negatives come from hard-core haters of the Clintons, who are "under no circumstances" ever going to vote for her.
From this Zogby wisdom I can conclude that Senator Clinton might make a good candidate: Indeed, nationally, some of that "mushy middle" might be persuaded to come over to her side if she puts on an effective campaign.
But most important: Bill Clinton, despite his travails, remains popular among the voters at large. Isn't it arguable that his popularity, or much of it, might well be transferred to his wife?
I'll tell you why I really think she will run. Back in late summer 1991, Bill Clinton, who had indicated he would get into the race, decided that disclosures about his marital infidelity, which he knew were coming, would kill his chances. He told friends he would drop out. But it was Hillary who wouldn't give up on that race. It was she who thought up the idea of the two of them coming to the Monitor breakfast in September to see if they couldn't put the scandals behind them by telling the reporters that they had worked out these problems between them.
Encouraged by the press response to this approach to their problem, Bill Clinton soon threw his hat into the ring. His personal problems didn't end. But he had pushed ahead into the race at Hillary's urgings.
So it is that even if the sky may be dark for her prospects, I think Hillary will run. She'll remember how Bill prevailed in the primary and the election after that early period when his prospects didn't look at all good.
She will also figure that even if she loses, she can put herself in a good position for being the nominee in 2008, when the prospect for winning may be much better.