On 20 January 2009, at precisely noon, the world will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. As the chief justice administers the oath of office on the flag-draped podium in front of the US Capitol, the first woman President, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will be sworn into office. By her side, smiling broadly and holding the family Bible, will be her chief strategist, husband, and co-President, William Jefferson Clinton.
If the thought of another Clinton presidency excites you, then the future indeed looks bright. Because, as of this moment, there is no doubt that Hillary Clinton is on a virtually uncontested trajectory to win the Democratic nomination and, very likely, the 2008 election. She has no serious opposition in her party. The order of presidential succession from 1992 through 2008, in other words, may well become Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.
But her victory is not inevitable. There is one, and only one, figure in America who can stop Hillary Clinton: Secretary of State Condoleezza 'Condi' Rice. Among all of the possible Republican candidates for President, Condi alone could win the nomination, defeat Hillary and derail a third Clinton administration.
Condoleezza, in fact, poses a mortal threat to Hillary's success. With her broad-based appeal to voters outside the traditional Republican base, Condi has the potential to cause enough major defections from the Democratic party to create serious erosion among Hillary's core voters. She attracts the same female, African-American and Hispanic voters who embrace Hillary, while still maintaining the support of conventional Republicans.
There is, perhaps, an inevitability to the clash: two highly accomplished women, partisans of opposite parties, media superstars and quintessentially 21st-century female leaders, have risen to the top of American politics. Each is an icon to her supporters and admirers. Two groundbreakers, two pioneers. Indeed, two of the most powerful women on the planet; Forbes magazine recently ranked Condi as number one and Hillary as number 26 in its 2005 list of the most powerful women in the world. For the first time in our history, a majority of voters say they would support a woman for President. In a May USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, an amazing 70 percent indicated that they 'would be likely to vote for an unspecified woman for President in 2008'.
Hillary Clinton has always wanted to be the first woman President of the United States. Shortly after her husband's election in 1992, the couple's closest advisers openly discussed plans for her eventual succession after Bill's second term. Things didn't turn out quite that way, but her election to the Senate in 2000 gave her the national platform she needed to launch her new image - the 'Hillary Brand' - and begin her long march back to the White House.
Hillary Clinton does not want any other woman to take what she regards as her just place in history. Yet, ironically, it is Hillary's candidacy that makes Condi's necessary and, therefore, likely. The first woman nominated by the Democrats can only be defeated by the first woman nominated by the Republicans. Were Condi and Hillary to face one another, it would be the next great American presidential race and one of the classic bouts in history: Hector vs Achilles; Wellington vs Bonaparte; Lee vs Grant; Mary, Queen of Scots vs Elizabeth; Ali vs Frasier. And now, Condi vs Hillary.
These potential combatants are as different as, well, black and white. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other: not only white/black but north/south; Democrat/Republican; married/single; suburban/urban; and, in policy interests, domestic/foreign.
Their backgrounds are not in the least similar. While Hillary grew up in the middle-class security of white, Protestant Park Ridge, Illinois, Condi came of age on the wrong side of the racial divide in pre-civil rights Birmingham, Alabama. It was Rice who came from an educated, professional family; Hillary's was far more blue-collar. It is not only their family backgrounds and geography that were distinctive. Their careers also took very different paths. For more than 30 years, Hillary's success has always been coupled with her relationship with one powerful man: Bill Clinton.
Unlike Hillary, Condi has never married and her success has never been a matter of hitching her wagon to the political fortunes of a powerful man. Instead, she advanced strictly on her merits. She began her career by excelling as an academic and specialising in foreign affairs. Eventually, she brought that expertise to a family of Presidents. But it was always Condi's record of accomplishment that made her a prominent national figure.
When she was still in her twenties, she was elevated to the Stanford University faculty because she amazed her colleagues with her abilities. She came to Washington during the administration of President George HW Bush because she had impressed national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who met her at Stanford. She was only 34 when she became the administration's chief expert on the Soviet Union. Condi Rice, in short, reached her position of power on the strength of her achievements.
Condi's and Hillary's respective reputations in politics, too, were diametrically opposed. Condoleezza Rice has never been involved in personal or professional wrongdoing; Hillary has been embroiled in scandal after scandal, ever since she entered public life. She has always teetered on the ethical edge.
Both women deny having plans to run for President in 2008. In Hillary's case, the demur is traditional, usually couched in an often-repeated coy and calculated answer - 'Right now, I am focusing on being the best senator from New York that I can be' - rather than a flat-out rejection of the idea.
Condi's dismissals have been more emphatic. During an interview with the Washington Times in March, she said she had no intention of running for President. A denial, but a soft one: 'I have never wanted to run for anything,' Rice said. 'I don't think I even ran for class anything when I was in school.'
The fact that Condi has not laid out a plan to run for President does not, by any means, signify that she won't run. It's not that simple. Compared with Hillary, she merely approaches her future in a very different way. She has never planned her advancement with the same degree of precision that Hillary has. She hasn't had to. Her obvious talent has stood out among her peers and her rapid promotions have always been the result. Hillary is different. She is a plodder; she approaches the presidential race like a long to-do list. For her, the path to the West Wing in 2008 is already laid. The strategy is in place, the players are on the team.
For the past 15 years, the Clintons have systematically built up a network of wealthy donors, influential supporters and opinion leaders throughout the country, creating a Rolodex of millions. They used the power of the presidency to reward these people by appointing them to jobs and commissions. They also understood the allure of invitations to the White House and used events like state dinners and Christmas parties to solidify the loyalty of their stalwarts.
Under Bill's tutelage, but with the discipline he lacks, Hillary will scrupulously follow their jointly developed plan to recapture power. They may not spend much time together, but they are united on their journey back to Pennsylvania Avenue. Hillary will absorb all the lessons her husband's history has to teach and dramatically and obviously move to the centre. The Clintons have always understood that they cannot attract swing voters with a leftist agenda. So, for the campaign, Hillary will become a moderate, at least in public.
But Hillary's newfound centrism focuses only on issues at the margins of American politics. She may attack sex on television or call for more values in public life, but when the chips are down, she votes like a solid liberal, backing her party more than 90 percent of the time.
Condi's way to 2008 is totally different. She has none of the presumptive-nominee aura that Hillary has working for her. Her viability as a contender for the 2008 nomination will depend on whatever successes she has as secretary of state. She will first be seen as plausible, then as desirable, and, finally, as voters see Hillary move to the fore, irresistible. In the end, it is not Condoleezza Rice who will come to the voters asking for the nomination, but they who will come to her, imploring her to run.
Can Rice be nominated? The vacuum in the Republican 2008 field makes it quite possible that she can. There is no heir apparent. Dick Cheney's health isn't strong enough, and nobody else from the cabinet stands out. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are the early front-runners, gathering together more than four out of every five decided votes in the polls. But Rudy is too liberal to win the nomination. And McCain showed his limited appeal to GOP primary voters in 2000, when he won the votes of Independents but lost the vast majority of registered Republicans to Bush.
As meritorious as these two men are, they aren't going to win the Republican nomination. Their likely demise will leave an enormous vacuum. There will be a search for a real candidate, someone of stature, someone charismatic who can beat Hillary. And the party faithful will turn to Condi Rice. America has not seen a real draft of a presidential candidate since Dwight D Eisenhower in 1952. Yet popular acclamation can be one of the highest expressions of democracy.
A draft is especially possible at this time in America's history, for, as the 2004 election results revealed, there has been a seminal change in US politics. That was the year that the political ruling class was turned upside down. On the left and on the right, ordinary people found themselves in the vortex of the national campaign in 2004, each battling to be heard, outshouting the mainstream media and creating in the process a new, lower centre of gravity for our politics. It's just the kind of environment in which the grassroots activists can decide who they want to be President.
The same avalanche of individual activists can animate the draft-Condi movement. So widespread is the admiration for this self-made woman and so ubiquitous the fear of the Hillary juggernaut that it may well be the spontaneous outpouring of hundreds of thousands of people that could propel a Rice candidacy.
It almost happened once before. In the autumn of 1995, General Colin Powell, newly resplendent in his post-Gulf War prestige, published his memoirs just as the pre-primary process for the 1996 Republican nomination to oppose Clinton was gathering steam. Inside the White House, Clinton was panicked. He ranted and railed apoplectically, to all within earshot, that Powell didn't deserve the 'free ride' the media were giving him.
For a while, Powell seemed unstoppable. As he careened from one packed book signing to the next, his name soared to the top of all the presidential polls. Enigmatically, he refused to acknowledge the political firestorm around him and would not address the possibility that he might run in 1996.
Then came the bad news: Powell couldn't beat Bob Dole in a Republican primary. His support for affirmative action, gun control and an array of liberal positions undermined him and left him without a party. 'Congratulations,' I told Clinton after showing him the poll demonstrating that Powell wouldn't get the nomination and therefore, I said, would not run. 'You just won the election.'
But Condi is not Colin. And 2008 is not the same as 1996. Back then, Powell had to live off the residual legacy of his Gulf War achievements. But Condi will find her inadvertent candidacy fuelled by her real-time accomplishments on the world stage. And wouldn't a Condoleezza Rice candidacy change America? The very fact that an African-American woman could actually become President would send a powerful message to every minority child that there is no more ceiling, no more limit for black Americans in elective politics. The sky would now be the limit.
Make no mistake about it. If the next presidential election were held today, Hillary Clinton would be in your face, exuberantly delivering her victory speech on every television network and beginning the redecoration of the White House, starting with the designation of the office for her chief adviser and the new first husband, Bill Clinton. (His would be the one right next to the President's dining room, the one with the small, eye-level window in the door, so she can easily see what he's up to.) Hillary is hot. She's popular. She's confident - and with good reason. She is by far the Democrats' top choice and she has the support of women voters, the key swing group who make the difference in American elections.
Hillary has found her groove. Her message is tight, clear and controlled. It reads: Hillary Clinton is a hardworking, effective moderate who can collaborate with even the most conservative Republicans on joint, highly visible (and usually uncontroversial) projects. She's highly supportive of the military, capable in foreign affairs and fighting to keep pornography and violence away from children. She's experienced; she spent eight years in the White House. She's independent of her husband, although very much married, and she's serious. She is not - repeat, not - a liberal.
Condoleezza Rice can defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Were she to run, her candidacy would strike directly at the three pillars of the Democratic Party's political base: African-Americans, Hispanics and white women. The Democrats cannot win without fully tapping all three sources of votes. A Hillary Clinton candidacy is particularly strong because of her appeal to all three bastions of Democratic power. Because of her husband's long identification with minority voters, her efforts to court Hispanic voters and her own gender and record of feminism, she stands to cash in on the support of all three groups in a huge way.
But Condoleezza Rice, also a woman and an African-American, blocks Hillary's built-in advantages. How would Condi fare among blacks? Would she crack the solid phalanx of African- American support for the Democratic party, something no Republican has done in 50 years?
A number of prominent black Democratic politicians think she could. Bill Clinton's former secretary of agriculture, Mike Espy, the first black congressman from Mississippi and a lifelong Democrat, thinks Condi would run well among America's blacks. Espy was one of two African-Americans in Clinton's first cabinet.
'They are two brilliant women,' Espy says, 'evenly matched, both well rounded, both with interests outside politics.' How would the black community vote? 'Their heads would be for Hillary,' Espy predicts, 'but their hearts would be with Condi.' And which would they follow? 'We often are emotional and follow our hearts. We would all like to have parents like Condi's - focused, encouraging, nurturing - and we'd all like to have a daughter like Condi,' Espy says.
When I pressed him for a numerical prediction, the former congressman thought for a while and then said: 'My guess is that the race [among African-American voters] would be pretty much even. Hillary may have a bit of an edge because of the hegemony of the Democratic party base, but Condi would run much, much better than any other Republican. My guess would be a 60-40 Hillary margin.'
Condoleezza Rice's public record at the White House is of relatively recent vintage. It is her life story, more than her public career, that tells us why she could be a great President. Rice's biography is a unique story that bears elaboration. Condoleezza Rice has been defying odds since she was born in an all-black community in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family was solidly middle class, but in the Birmingham of those days, racial barriers could not be bypassed, even by money.
Shopping as a young girl with her mother at a local department store, an employee told her she could not use the 'whites only' dressing room and had to try on her clothing in a back storage cupboard. When Condi's mother refused and threatened to leave, the embarrassed employee relented. 'I remember,' Condi relates, 'the woman standing there guarding the [dressing room] door worried to death that she was going to lose her job.' But the event that seared its way most powerfully into Rice's memory was the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a few miles from her house. She heard the blast. Rice recalls the terror she felt, as an eight-year-old, that day.
'These terrible events burned into my consciousness,' she remembers. And as America shook its head in disbelief at the murder of four girls in the blast, Condi Rice was mourning the two she knew, including Denise McNair, her kindergarten classmate.
'I remember more than anything the small coffins and the sense that Birmingham was not a very safe place.' Racism also followed her to the University of Denver, where her professor lectured the 250 students in his class on the genetic inferiority of African-Americans, citing the pseudo-scientific work of William Shockley. Rice simmered as her professor recounted Shockley's belief that 'art, literature, technology, linguistics - all the treasures of Western civilisation - are the products of the superior white intellect'.
'Rather than crouch down in her seat to avoid the onslaught,' her biographer Antonia Felix reports, Rice 'sprang out of her chair and defended herself: "I'm the one who speaks French! I'm the one who plays Beethoven. I'm better at your culture than you are. This can be taught!'" Condi's mother and father tried to shield her from the arrows of racism. As Rice told Ebony magazine: 'Our parents really did have us convinced that even though I couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworth's, I could be President of the United States.'
In their differing backgrounds - and the life choices that flowed from them - Hillary and Condi reflect the different priorities of their political parties and the approach they take to the problems of social betterment, upward mobility and race relations. If the Democrats see individual upward mobility as a danger to group cohesion, the Republicans see the tendency to herd into a group and stick together as stimulating a sense of victimhood and class identification that is alien to true democracy.
Democrats accuse Republicans of callousness, saying they neglect those at the bottom and work only for the few who are well equipped to compete in life. Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to enhance bloc voting by trying to keep the poor and minorities in a group, dependent on handouts from the political system for their upward mobility.
So what kind of President would Hillary be? How would Condi handle the job? Let's start with policy. Hillary Clinton would be the most liberal President since Lyndon Johnson. Bill Clinton is a moderate by choice and, sometimes, a liberal by necessity. But his wife is the exact opposite. Hillary believes that government delivers services well and that the quest for private profit is the root of all selfishness and vice in American life.
In foreign affairs, Hillary's views are less clear. She is only just learning about these issues and her real opinions have yet to emerge - and probably won't until after she is elected. During her White House years, she was a peacenik, opposed to foreign interventions, against American involvement in Somalia and concerned that the administration would be too preoccupied with the Balkans. But now, who knows? For her part, Condoleezza Rice shares the basic Bush/Republican outlook on public policy issues. She would likely seek to hold down taxes, limit the role of government and harness the private sector for the delivery of public services.
Like Hillary, Condoleezza Rice is a woman on a mission. But Rice's mission is the expansion of democracy. Where Hillary would focus primarily on expanding the role of the government at home, Rice would want to see America become more involved abroad. The election of 2008 will be the next great presidential race. With the possibility of two popular women as candidates, the voters will make history. We can only hope it's the right kind of history.
Extracted from Condi vs Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann published by Harper Collins. (c) Dick Morris and Eileen McGann 2005.