Obama/Clinton 2012?

The Woodward rumor and the Post’s smart pushback

Note to political reporters and pundits: a rumor is a rumor, even if it’s Bob Woodward spreading it.

The rumor we’re talking about this morning is the one that Hillary Clinton could/might/should replace Joe Biden as president Obama’s running mate for the 2012 election. Wise political move, say the pundits: Just think of the swarms of Latinas who’d be suddenly spurred to political action!

Apparently, the rumor has been swirling around Washington for some time, but it gained new traction and national attention overnight when CNN’s John King asked Bob Woodward—psst, you may have heard, he has a new book out—about any interesting asides he’s come across in researching his latest tell-all. (All good bookstores! Even bad ones!)

I’ll let Politico tell you what happened next:

“It’s on the table,” Woodward replied. “And some of Hillary Clinton’s advisers see it as a real possibility in 2012. President Obama needs some of the women, Latinos, retirees that she did so well with during the 2008 primaries. So they switch jobs and not out of the question. The other interesting question is, Hillary Clinton could run in her own right in 2016 and be younger than Ronald Reagan when he was elected president.”

That is a very interesting question, Bob (even though it’s actually a statement). Kind of like, is there life in outer space? And, if so, does Amazon deliver there?

Naturally, every Beltway blog and website has jumped on Woodward’s statement (offered without evidence), which seems to have legitimized D.C. gossip and given the go-ahead for a round of Obama/Hillary speculation on an otherwise pretty dull political news day (no Christine O’Donnell was a witch/camel herder story; no Gloria Allred; no new Sharron Angle tape from Jon Ralston… yet). It’s an exciting story: big personalities, big implications, a sequel of sorts to a thrilling, dirty original. So we’re suddenly partying like its 2008.

Most outlets quick to report on the Woodward comment have beefed up the news “story” with a bit of pat contextualization and speculation—some might stretch it and say analysis—as to the whys and what-will-happen-nexts. Embellishing the rumor if you will. Take this, from The Hill, for example, which, unlike a more skeptical Politico, failed to mention that the White House has denied the rumors.

Clinton would bring the kind of additional foreign policy experience to the table that had initially prompted Obama to choose Biden as a running mate in 2008. She’s also one of the few administration officials to actually enjoy an increase in popularity since joining the administration.

But the only piece you should really read on the matter—if you are so compelled to read anything on it at all—is The Washington Post’s Anne. E. Kornblut’s piece. The reporter opens by noting the White House’s flat denial and then astutely asks: “Where, then, is this fantastical rumor coming from?”

Not surprisingly, Kornblut discovers the rumor was born in the “staff shakeup” meme which began in June, and which has proved so far to be pretty spot-on. But it developed and grew into its current shape through the diligent parenting of—you guessed it—pundits.

A few days later, WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan came to a similar conclusion after declaring the Obama presidency “snakebit.”

“Among Democrats - and others - when the talk turns to the presidency, it turns more and more to Hillary Clinton,” she wrote. ” ‘We may have made a mistake. She would have been better.’ Sooner or later the secretary of state is going to come under fairly consistent pressure to begin to consider 2012.”

Shortly thereafter, Sally Quinn opened an opinion piece in The Washington Post with: “Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden should switch jobs. Really.”

And now Woodward.

The Post piece is a “hold your horses” type deal, and ends with a “we’ve been here before” type sentiment.

Still, even Clinton’s biggest advocates are not suggesting that trading places is even under discussion. “I’d be stunned if there’s anything to it,” Democratic strategist James Carville said Tuesday. “Anything is possible in politics. But I don’t know of anything beyond speculation, and I really doubt it’s anything.”

It is worth noting that similar howls are heard around Washington every four to eight years or so. Remember the strategy to remove Dan Quayle as President George H.W. Bush’s running mate in 1992? Or the notion - pronounced with such certainty in some quarters - that President George W. Bush would have to kick Vice President Richard B. Cheney off the ticket in 2004 in order to win reelection?

In a perfect world, Woodward’s comment would not warrant a flurry of web posts and blog write-ups nor require a competent assessment like Kornblut’s (nor for that matter a post of this nature from me). But I am glad she was here today to offer some journalistic skepticism and temper all the excitement that comes from the tantalizing equation of Obama+Clinton+Campaign=X Factor, even when the math isn’t quite there yet.

Still, diligent though Kornblut’s work is, anyone who’s been to high school knows rumors stick (and I am sure, Woodward would argue, always begin somewhere). It’s unlikely a well-written pushback piece like this is likely to mean the Woodward nugget won’t make the Sunday gabfests. Probably several times over the next two years. And definitely if there’s a book to be sold.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.