Who's really driving the Hillary train?

·National Political Columnist

Perhaps you've noticed that Democrats in Washington get a little touchy these days where Hillary Clinton is concerned. A few weeks ago, I had the temerity to suggest that Clinton wouldn't be able to run unopposed for the Democratic nomination. This prompted an immediate response in the Daily Beast from Bob Shrum, the venerable party strategist, who argued that of course Clinton would easily clear the Democratic field and waltz to the nomination, because her situation so closely resembles that of Ulysses Grant in 1868. I'm not making this up.

All this defensiveness leads me to think that a lot of commentators are confused about what's going on with Clinton's political future right now. We think what we're seeing is an elaborate campaign, directed by Hillary, to lock down the 2016 nomination and solidify her image as a leader. But in reality, this isn't emanating from Clinton, and it has nothing to do with voters. What we're really looking at is a campaign orchestrated by nervous Democrats and aimed at persuading Clinton herself.

The truth is that, leaving aside all this bravado about happy demographics and the disunion of Republicans, Democrats are scared out of their minds right now. The House is solidly out of reach. The Senate is slipping away. And the White House could be close behind, especially if Clinton doesn't run, and if Republicans can rally around a credible candidate.

In the six decades since we added the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits a president from serving more than two consecutive terms, only once has either party managed to hold on to the White House for more than eight years. That was in 1988, when Republicans lucked into a campaign against Michael Dukakis. (Ask Shrum about it.)

Meanwhile, absent Clinton, Democrats have no obvious or terribly inspiring presidential options, and certainly no one who can spare them a painful and disorderly primary process. The titanic, once-in-a-generation clash of Obama versus Clinton was kind of thrilling; the thought of watching Joe Biden battle it out in Iowa with Andrew Cuomo and Martin O'Malley seems less so. It tells you something when three-time loser Jerry Brown, at 76, would be a clear star in the field.

Of course Clinton is going to be seen as a savior. The problem is that Hillary really hasn't given anyone an indication that she's yet decided to run, and she has plenty of reasons not to. She's already been through the misery of a bruising primary fight once, and it took her years of doggedness (not to mention the grace of her triumphant opponent) to rebuild her public standing to the point where she's seen as something more than another craven politician. The minute she files papers in New Hampshire, all that goes away.

Plus, as the world now knows (because it's a bigger story than the rising of oceans or the discovery of planets), Hillary is about to become a grandmother, and she's recently battled some vague health issues. And after more than 20 years at the pinnacle of public life, she might just want to sit around and watch reruns of "Duck Dynasty" for a while.

So all of this Hillary machinery in Washington — four Washington super PACs and counting — really isn't coming together because Clinton gave the sign. It's happening because Washington insiders are trying to persuade their only towering candidate that the race would not only be winnable, but also relatively painless. That's the only way they can be reasonably sure that Clinton will enter the race — if she thinks the party has already essentially anointed her and that the only thing that could be standing between her and the presidency is Jeb Bush's giant head.

This is why operatives get so agitated when you say the primary field can't actually be cleared (because this is 2014, not 1868), or when you remind people that Clinton isn't actually the most charismatic retail candidate who ever lived. It's not the voters they're worried about; it's Clinton herself. They don't want anything to cloud their message that the White House is hers for the taking, if only she'll say yes.

In fact, despite all the talk of close Clinton acolytes building a national campaign, much of the Clinton-for-president train is actually being driven by people who have their own agendas and who aren't really close to the Clintons at all. Some of them are hangers-on from previous campaigns who want badly to graduate into the inner circle. Others are operatives and politicians who worked against Hillary and are now trying to get on the right side of events.

It's probably not an accident that the two senators who most recently felt moved to endorse Clinton even before she runs — Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Virginia's Tim Kaine — were Obama supporters in 2008. Kaine, for one, would make an excellent vice presidential pick. I'm just saying.

You can bet that Karl Rove understands what's really happening here, which is why he let slip this week that he thinks maybe Clinton has suffered some serious cerebral event. Rove knew what he was doing, and it wasn't raising doubt about Clinton with the electorate. He was sending his own message to Clinton, which is that, no matter what anyone else is trying to sell her, if she thinks 2016 will be any less personal or divisive than the other campaigns in which she's been involved, she'd better get real.

Could Clinton shut down all of this maneuvering if she really wanted to? Of course she could — at least to some extent. But if you're Hillary, why would you? You'd have to rule out running, which would close off a path you may well want to pursue. And as long as you're assumed to be a candidate, everything you say is important, and every cause you care about is news. If Clinton looks like she's having fun with all the speculation, it's probably because she is.

None of this means Clinton won't actually run for president, of course. If I were given to glib prognostication (and I'm not), I'd say the odds are pretty good she will.

But it does mean that Clinton's candidacy isn't anything like the certainty you're being told it is. And it means, whether Washington Democrats want anyone to say it out loud or not, that this notion of an easy coronation is an illusion, created by self-interested operatives for an audience of one. All the super PACs and endorsements in the world won't spare Hillary, should she run, from another round of searing primaries and the inevitable unraveling of her statesmanlike image.

Campaigns, like wars, are never easy. Ulysses Grant could have told you that.