Karl Rove has been speculating about the health of Hillary Clinton recently.

Karl Rove has been speculating about the health of Hillary Clinton recently. Tony Gutierrez/AP

Does Hillary Owe It to Democrats to Run?

Karl Rove's attacks on Clinton's health divert attention from what promises to be a fascinating election, no matter who decides to enter the fray.

Some people involved in politics evoke the strongest of emotions. Surely, Hillary Clinton is one of those people. In the category of those who have never sought elective office themselves, Karl Rove would certainly be on the list as well. Their lines intersected a week ago with a New York Post report that at a conference, Rove made reference to the much-publicized fall and head injury that the then-secretary of State experienced during her final months in that post. This incident resulted in a three-day hospitalization, during which Clinton was under observation. Rove reportedly asked, “Thirty days in the hospital?” continuing, “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have had traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” This set off a firestorm of news stories suggesting that Rove was implying Clinton had suffered some kind of permanent brain damage as a result of her fall. Rove clarified his remarks this past weekend on Fox News Sunday. “I’m not questioning her health,” he said. “What I’m questioning is whether or not it’s a done deal that she’s running. And she would not be human if she did not take this into consideration.”

If Rove was only making the point that Clinton—who will turn 69 two weeks before the 2016 general election—might not run, there were certainly less inflammatory ways of raising that issue. I suspect that Rove knew precisely what he was saying and that he wanted to get that discussion going with a rhetorical “high and inside” pitch, the kind we see too much of in American politics. But to his second, clarified point, this column has noted that while Clinton’s age will be precisely the same as Ronald Reagan’s when he was first elected president, people in their late 60s do not make nine-year commitments lightly. In my previous piece, I was not arguing that she wouldn’t run (in fact, I stated that there was perhaps a 70 percent chance that she would), but rather that there was a chance she might not feel up to it. People quite close to Clinton have suggested that she may simply decide not to run; some news reports have said that others in her circle would rather she didn’t.

Nobody has to explain to Hillary Clinton how arduous running for president is; she has seen it up close and personal. She understands the demands and will either feel ready, willing, and able to run, or she’ll decide she would like to slow down and have a life, enjoy being a grandmother and spending time outside the grind of political life. If her heart is in it, she should run; if her heart isn’t in it, running would be a horrible mistake.

The question of whether Clinton runs certainly evokes strong emotions in many people. At a dinner recently, a friend—one with clear Democratic sympathies—argued to me that if Clinton declined to run for president in 2016, the Democratic Party would have a right to feel angry with her, suggesting that she had an obligation to run. My view is somewhat different: She is her own human being, she has the right to make her own career choices, and if she decides not to run, the Democratic Party should simply thank her for past service and move on and find someone else. Clinton doesn’t owe anything to anyone else in this situation, other than making the right decision for herself. Other Democrats simply feel that as someone who obviously is among the most ambitious around, she would be simply incapable of deciding not to run.

Each side has strong views: Some Republicans fear she could be unbeatable, while some on the Democratic side have a fear of the unknown. If Clinton decides not to enter the contest, the Democratic nomination would probably resemble a Cecil B. DeMille production, with a cast of thousands, in which no one would have any idea who would emerge as the party’s standard-bearer. For some reason, that seems really scary to some Democrats. Personally, I think that whether Clinton runs or not, 2016 will be a very exciting—probably fascinating—race. The next presidential contest is just a very different race with her versus without her; the latter scenario would most likely result in the baton being passed to a very different political generation. How could that not be exciting?

The question of whether Jeb Bush runs on the GOP side isn’t the same at all, even though he certainly represents a link to the past. The known and theoretical alternatives--save Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum--would be that of new generation, relatively new political faces, more of the future. Should Bush run, he would likely set up a battle for the heart and soul of the GOP. The fact that current polls show him roughly tied with Huckabee and Sen. Rand Paul underscores how much the Republican Party has changed. Jeb Bush would represent the old Republican Party, the linear descendent of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush (I am avoiding President Reagan, but that could be argued either way), along with Bob Dole. Most of the alternatives to Bush are variations on the new theme of the GOP, far less conventional choices, although arguably some of the governors who are looking at running could legitimately fall into either category.

We should reconcile ourselves to another two years of back-and-forth grenade-lobbing, overshadowing at times what is likely to be a really interesting campaign that can still go in a thousand different directions.

This article appears in the May 20, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Unhealthy Distraction.