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Hillary Clinton's choice

Upon returning to Congress the New York senator can nurture hopes of winning the White House in 2012 or beyond; or she can make a lasting legislative mark.. It's unlikely that she can do both.
/ Source: National Journal

As soon as next week, Hillary Rodham Clinton may return to the Senate as a defeated presidential candidate. Her stay could be brief if Barack Obama, now nearing the Democratic nomination, chooses her as his running mate. But if Obama doesn't--or if he does and they lose in November--Clinton will quickly face a career-defining decision in 2009. Call it "Hillary's Choice."

Her choice is this: She can nurture hopes of winning the White House in 2012 or beyond; or she can make a lasting legislative mark in the Senate. It's unlikely that she can do both.

Clinton may not want to acknowledge it, but this historic Democratic race is close enough to its end to permit some final judgments. In her campaign, Clinton certainly made mistakes large (conceding too many caucuses) and small (a shot and a beer? Really?). But overall she ran remarkably well.

Other than Obama, no Democratic candidate has ever won as many primary votes as Clinton already has. And if Florida is counted, she might surpass even Obama in the popular vote when the last contests are concluded next week. Likewise, probably no other Democratic primary candidate apart from Obama has matched Clinton's nationwide network of donors and volunteers. Hillary Clinton began the race as the inheritor of a family franchise built by her husband, Bill Clinton. She ends it with her own distinctive political voice--tough, empathetic, tenacious. Assuming that she doesn't mount a suicidal effort to wrench the nomination from Obama after he reaches a delegate majority, she will return to the Senate a much larger figure than when this marathon started.

Greater national visibility, though, doesn't guarantee greater influence within the Senate. As congressional historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University points out, senators who win their party's nomination but lose the general election typically suffer a loss of prestige, at least temporarily, when they return to the chamber. "You lost it for your party ... so your stature is diminished," he says. Think of Republican Barry Goldwater after 1964, or Democrats George McGovern and John Kerry after 1972 and 2004.

Ironically, senators who were defeated in their quest for their party's presidential nomination--and thus do not carry the stigma of a general election loss--have sometimes fared better upon their return. The visibility that Al Gore gained in his unsuccessful 1988 presidential race helped him become Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992. The reputation for independence that Republican John McCain burnished during his failed 2000 bid made him a preferred partner afterward for senators seeking bipartisan coalitions. Sen. Edward Kennedy's loss to President Carter in the 1980 Democratic primary campaign freed Kennedy from the burden of resurrecting Camelot--and liberated him to become a legislative master.

Kennedy's example, as other senators have noted, might be the most relevant for Hillary Clinton. Kennedy can be a fierce partisan. But on many of his key achievements (children's health, education) he has brokered deals with Republicans through painstaking negotiation and concession. Kennedy has used his iconic status within his party to build coalitions that transcend it.

Clinton lacks the seniority that Kennedy already enjoyed by 1980. But she possesses a strong staff, good working relations with Republicans, and unlimited visibility in the media--all assets that magnified Kennedy's legislative clout. Most important, in this campaign she established herself as a dogged defender of economically strained working families. With that "brand," her endorsement eventually could become a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval that encourages other Democrats to accept potential Senate deals, as Kennedy's endorsement does now. "She could very easily get into that role," says Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf.

But Clinton will find it difficult to perform that function if she continues to harbor future presidential ambitions. Any concessions she might make to Republicans (or even conservative Democrats) to cement Senate agreements would provide targets for future rivals. Success in the Senate might jeopardize success in the presidential primaries. McCain, this year's presumptive GOP nominee, survived that conundrum, but only after moving away from positions (on immigration, torture, and taxes) that aligned him with Democrats. He also benefited from a split among his party's most ideological voters. No one should bet on replicating that formula.

Before long, Hillary's Choice will compel her to decide whether to focus her talent and ambition on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue--or on the other.