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A defining moment for the Democratic Party

Taking the job of Secretary of State may have been one of the smartest moves Hillary Clinton's ever made.
File Photo:  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) chats with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People on November 17, 2009 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by...
File Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) chats with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President...

Let me finish tonight with a look back at a moment that history may one day remember as the defining political moment of this era for the Democratic Party--and maybe for the country as a whole.

December 1, 2008: the day that Barack Obama announced that Hillary Clinton would be joining his administration as Secretary of State.

We talked tonight on Hardball about how Clinton and her supporters are going to have to do a better job answering a very basic question, a Roger Mudd question, about what she actually accomplished in that job if she's going to run for the White House in 2016. But let's remember the politics that were at play back in December 2008, the politics that made the idea of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton just as appealing to her as it was to Barack Obama.

From Obama's standpoint, it removed an imposing shadow from Capitol Hill. The Hillary Clinton of 2008 was a senator with an enormous national profile, one who'd just won 17 million votes in the Democratic primaries. There'd been tension between her and Obama in those primaries, ugly words exchanged by their high profile backers. There were hard feelings.

And here was Barack Obama in December 2008, poised to take over the presidency just as the country was plunging into an economic crisis. He knew that he was in for a rough first term--that a deep recession, high unemployment, and a slow recovery would steadily and quickly erode his political strength.

And he knew that the last thing he needed was for his vanquished rival from the 2008 primaries to be sitting in the Senate and to spot an opportunity in his struggles to question (artfully, of course) his priorities, to challenge his strategy, to remind Democrats without ever saying the words that things might have been different if only they'd sided with her. He didn't need Hillary Clinton hovering over the domestic political scene, and he definitely didn't need the press--not to mention, his own party--getting any ideas about a 2012 primary rematch.

So Obama made peace and offered his rival the plummest of plum Cabinet slots, and she took it because there was a lot in it for her too.

Becoming Secretary of State freed Hillary Clinton from all of the domestic political landmines that every Democrat in Congress was about to face. Think of the stimulus and healthcare--things Republicans were poised to demagogue into deep unpopularity. Being Secretary of State elevated Clinton, too--above the polarization that defines this era that makes everyone with a ‘D’ after their name an automatic target for anyone labeled with an ‘R.’

When Obama's approval rating dipped into the low 40s, when Democrats were slaughtered in the 2010 midterms, when the public's disgust with Congress reached an all-time high--when all of this happened, Hillary Clinton was nowhere to be seen on Capitol Hill. She was off travelling the world, burnishing a new image as a stateswoman, and watching her poll numbers back home climb and climb to heights she'd never before realized.

Removing Hillary Clinton from the day-to-day politics of the Obama presidency ended up being good for Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton. So yes, she needs a better answer to what she achieved on the international stage as Secretary of State.

But when it comes to what she achieved on the political stage back here in our country? Well, the answer to that is very clear: taking that job was one of the smartest moves Hillary Clinton's ever made.