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End of the Clinton era, or is it?

After 16 years of hope, tears, turmoil and improbable comebacks, a tumultuous political era has come to an end, as the Clinton political machine finally juddered to a halt.

world Updated: Jun 04, 2008 10:05 IST
Stephen Collinson
Stephen Collinson

After 16 years of hope, tears, turmoil and improbable comebacks, a tumultuous political era has come to an end, as the Clinton political machine finally juddered to a halt.

Barack Obama's historic Democratic nominating victory, means that for the first time in more than 16 years, no Clinton will either be campaigning for the presidency, sitting behind the Oval Office desk, or sizing up a run.

This campaign has at times left Bill and Hillary Clinton tarnished, at odds with half of their party, even accused of racism, and stunningly, outmaneuvered politically by an insurgent young Obama operation.

Yet, still they campaigned in trademark round-the-clock campaign swings for months, refused to hand over the prize -- and Hillary Clinton still has not admitted defeat.

"I will be making no decisions tonight," Clinton told cheering supporters in her final primary night "celebration" in New York city on Tuesday.

The Clintonian powers of redemption, recovery, and hunger for the political stage are such, that no sane observer will consign them to history just yet.

But the shape of Hillary Clinton's political career may now be out of her own hands: if Obama wins the presidency, and she is not chosen as his vice president, her dreams of the White House are probably over.

If he loses however, she may be unable to resist an "I told you so" run in 2012, when Senator Clinton would still be only 64.

Historians and analysts are already puzzling over whether the Clinton legacy has been tarnished or enhanced by the campaign.

"Is there one legacy or two?" said Andrew Dowdle, a political scientist at the Univeristy of Arkansas.

Despite her defeat, Clinton's campaign may be seen as a moment when she stepped out of the shadow of her husband, the only Democrat to win two White House terms since World War II.

She piled up more than 17 million votes, carved a distinct political persona, as a warrior for working class voters unrepresented elsewhere.

There is some irony here, as Bill Clinton made the party electable by dragging it back towards the political center.

"She has separated herself from her husband in this campaign," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University.

"She comes out of this a very serious Democrat, with an identity and a track record."

What exactly Clinton does next is unclear.

"She probably has 12 to 20 years of political life left," said Dowdle.

Once reconciled to her defeat, the New York Senator has a crucial role to play in mending a party divided by the primary campaign.

Clinton could mobilize her white, working class base, as well as legions of women voters who have powered her campaign, and Hispanics to help Obama.

Should Obama balk at naming her as vice presidential nominee, he might offer a cabinet post, asking her to pilot healthcare reform, her signature issue, through the Senate.

In future, a Senate leadership post might be on offer, though the chamber's seniority rules may mean a long wait.

Everything changes if Obama loses to Republican John McCain, reviving the tantalizing prospect of the presidency.

Bill Clinton relished the coda on his career offered by this campaign -- but it has proved a mixed blessing.

His political genius has been often overshadowed by a string of red-faced rages, claims 'the first black president' was playing the race card against Obama and apparent unease in the constant scrutiny of YouTube politics.

"For Bill Clinton, this will not be one of the things he will look back on as a high point of his career," said Dowdle.

Clinton has been accused of soiling his post-presidential dignity with partisan politics.

So he has a redemption crusade looming -- a familiar task for a man who buried the shame of impeachment by leaving office as wildly popular.

"He is the one that Barack Obama supporters feel has been doing unfair campaigning," Zelizer said. "That said, he is really good at recovering."

As his wife plots her next political move, Clinton will throw himself into his philanthropic foundation, and seek solace in his huge worldwide popularity.

And Washington will be watching, and waiting, for their next entrance.