Watching Hillary Rodham Clinton's exit from the State Department is a little like watching the season-ending episode of a popular television series that may not come back the next year. As loyal as its viewers are, there are always wary of network executives and even exhausted writers and producers who'd just as soon let it go. It's a good policy, after all, to leave your audience wanting more.
Clinton's finale could hardly have been more dramatic. After falling ill with a stomach virus in early December, she fainted, sustained a concussion and landed in a hospital with a blood clot between her brain and skull. Meanwhile, her detractors drummed up conspiracy theories about "Benghazi fever," and her supporters had a moment of genuine fear that Clinton might not be around to follow the script that so many have been writing for her over the last several years.
That script goes something like this: Clinton will take a long, much-deserved vacation, then assume a low-key schedule of advocacy work and lucrative speaking engagements. She'll exercise, sleep more and eat better. "I would like to see whether I can get untired," she said in November.
Her hair will finally find the sweet spot between the Stepford-esque helmet head of the campaign trail and the current granny-cum-Eileen-Fisher-model look. She might even, heaven forfend, indulge in some surgically assisted "freshening up." And then in late 2014, a more vibrant, less jowly Clinton will return to the spotlight and announce her candidacy for president.
It'll be a win-win. Voters who supported Clinton in 2008 will be thrilled in a better-late-than-never kind of way. Voters who were so besotted with Barack Obama that they turned on Clinton as if canceling plans with an old friend in favor of a hot date will be thrilled in an all's-right-with-the-universe kind of way.
When it comes to historic elections, 2008 was just what most Democrats wanted. First the exciting young black guy, then the somewhat less exciting but eminently reliable old white lady. It was as if liberal voters promised to eat their vegetables if they could just have dessert first.
But as Clinton's health scare reminded us, vegetables are perishable. Clinton is 65and presumably healthy, but she cannot be presumed to maintain her past and current energy levels into her 70s. Moreover, as she has said numerous times, she has no plans to seek the presidency in 2016. She has instead joked that maybe she'll host a decorating show.
Nonetheless, Clinton's fans are even now closing their eyes and imagining her in the Oval Office. And the idea that she may never get there — by choice, defeat or some kind of health or personal circumstance — remains unthinkable, even devastating.
To put another woman in the job, even one who might better uphold the liberal principles that made Clinton's supporters love her in the first place (someone like, say, Elizabeth Warren), would be a kind of betrayal, not to mention a long shot.
But for Clinton voters, there's something even more devastating than that: admitting that 2008 was their one and only chance and they missed it.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, when support shifted from Clinton to Obama, the rationale was that he stood a better chance of winning. Clinton was too polarizing — too Clintonesque. But there was another rationale: the less-discussed yet widely held belief that an Obama presidency today would in no way preclude a Clinton presidency tomorrow.