Question: How can you tell if a story is all hype and no substance? Answer: If it's on Drudge.
And that's really about all you need to know about the "chatter" about Hillary Clinton challenging President Obama in the 2012 Democratic primaries, which Matt Drudge dutifully played up latelast week. It's just not going to happen. Obama, almost certainly, will win his party's backing again without serious opposition.
Yeah, I know: No modern first-year president has seen his popularity drop as far and as fast as Obama's, and the Democrats just lost a Senate seat in Ted Kennedy's backyard, and the fall landscape looks bleak, and this isn't what people voted for, and blah blah blah.
This is the moment of Obama's presidency when it's particularly valuable to step back and take the long view. Because if you can pry yourself from the panicky narrative of the present, you'll realize -- as I've written over and over -- that Obama's second-year swoon was inevitable from the moment he was elected.
And inevitably, idle chatter about primary challenges goes hand-in-hand with second-year swoons. The Hillary murmurs are merely the loudest in a series of baseless murmurs. At the start of January, Politico floated the notion of a Howard Dean challenge to Obama from the left. Then came suggestions that Evan Bayh might go at him from the right. The New York Times even had fun putting Dennis Kucinich's name out there. Who's next on the list? John Edwards?
We've been down this same road with past presidents.
When Bill Clinton's presidency seemed to be going down the drain in 1994, we heard all about Jesse Jackson's impending challenge from the left. Or maybe Jerry Brown would run instead of Jackson. And either Paul Tsongas or Bob Kerrey would run to Clinton's right (on economic issues only), arguing that he hadn't done enough to trim entitlement spending and cut the deficit. And then there was Bob Casey, the pro-life Pennsylvania governor, itching to settle the score from the 1992 convention (when Clinton denied Casey a speaking slot).
Ronald Reagan got the same treatment in 1982, the second year of his presidency. As double-digit unemployment undermined his once-staggering popularity (sound familiar?), rumors of primary challenges began springing up. The yet-to-be-disgraced Bob Packwood was -- supposedly-- ready to go after Reagan from the left, while Jack Kemp, Jesse Helms and William Armstrong were all talked up as potential challengers from the right. (Yes, just like some progressives now call Obama a sell-out, some on the right affixed the same label to Reagan during his presidency.)
You know how the Reagan and Clinton stories played out: economic resurgences in Year Three and uncontested re-nominations (and landslide re-elections) in Year Four.
Sure, presidents aren't immune to primary challenges. Just ask George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. But there were extenuating circumstances in both cases. Bush splintered the GOP with his 1990 tax hike (creating an opening for Pat Buchanan), while Carter presided over a Democratic Party that was still in the throes of an identity crisis -- Carter's "new" Southern Democrats against the old-guard New Deal/Great Society/organized labor establishment. In other words, there was plenty of room for Ted Kennedy in 1980.
Obama's grip on his own party is far stronger than Carter's ever was. And while there's plenty of discontent on the left, he hasn't (yet) done anything to split the party the way Bush fractured his own. Which means that the Hillary/Bayh/Dean/Kucinich/Your Next-Door Neighbor primary chatter is mainly the product of Obama's second year political woes. Which, as Reagan and Clinton both showed, are likely to be fleeting -- no matter how serious they now seem.
When I try to remind people today that there was once talk of Reagan being challenged in the 1984 primaries, they are generally skeptical. It just doesn't seem right. Here's guessing that a few decades from now, reminiscences about the time when Evan Bayh was seen as a plausible primary challenger to Obama will be greeted with similar bafflement.