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History Doesn’t Favor a Clinton Challenge to Obama 

August 6, 2010

Former President Ronald Reagan always said the following about running for President of the United States: “A candidate doesn’t make the decision whether to run for President, the people make it, and the people let you know whether you should run.”

As President Barrack Obama’s presidential poll numbers continue to fall fast, some are asking whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might challenge the President for his party’s nomination in 2012.

History tells us that challenging a sitting President requires three intangible set of circumstances; 1) tremendous fortitude on the part of the candidate; 2) rock-star like personal popularity; and 3) a motivating political cause that is larger than the candidate.

Secretary Clinton seems to fall short on these three conditions. The fact that the policies of the sitting chief executive aren’t popular with the electorate isn’t enough of a reason for primary voters to turn their back on an incumbent President.

In modern political times, three incumbent Presidents have come under serious political challenge from within their own party – two were Democrats and one Republican.

To say there were extenuating political circumstances above and beyond the norm in the 1968 presidential election might be the ultimate understatement. The political state of affairs could be summed up in one issue: the Vietnam War.

The country had lost upwards of 50,000 soldiers in a war nobody understood why we were fighting, and that opened the door for both Senators Eugene McCarthy, (D-Minn.) and later Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY), to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson, who finally pulled out of the race.

While Senator Kennedy and his team wanted to regain the White House to continue the policies, and the legacy, of his martyred brother, it would have been unlikely, if not impossible, for him to defeat President Johnson if not for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Still, Senator Kennedy was reluctant to challenge the sitting President, and did so only after Senator McCarthy tested the waters first, with a stunning upset in the New Hampshire primary. The young Kennedy, of course, was ultimately assassinated on the eve of his biggest triumph, the California presidential primary, and the Republicans went on to win the White House in 1968.

Fast forward to 1976, former Governor Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination.

First, President Ford hadn’t been elected President; he ascended to the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal. More importantly though, President Ford was not governing as a conservative, when it came to reducing taxes and spending, or scaling back government intrusion, and the size of it, in our lives.

Thus, despite his personal charisma, and showbiz star quality, Reagan still needed a cause larger than himself, and the backing of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, to come within an eyelash of defeating President Ford for the nomination.

In 1980, it was apparent that President Jimmy Carter did not have a grasp on the mechanics of the presidency, and his policies were a disaster.

There was pressure on Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) to run for the presidency from the moment his brother, Robert, had been assassinated a decade earlier. With backing from the liberal wing of the Democrat Party, he agreed to challenge President Carter for the nomination, over disagreement with his policies on health care, trade, and jobs.

The Kennedy magnetism, money, connections, and apparent claim on the presidency, wasn’t enough to oust Carter, although like Reagan had in 1976, Senator Kennedy came close to capturing the nomination.

Thus, history is not on the side of Secretary Clinton to successfully challenge President Obama, no matter how politically appealing the prospect might seem to some.

The facts are, no one had more political appeal and backing in their day than the two Kennedy brothers, and Ronald Reagan, yet these political giants came up short against an incumbent President.

Secretary Clinton will certainly meet the same fate if she decides to make a similar run.