Hillary Clinton wanted to spend 2014 giving speeches, hawking a new book, but otherwise staying above the political fray while she decides whether to run for president. Republicans have other plans—and they're working.
For the better part of a year, the GOP has hewed to a two-pronged strategy built around forcing Clinton to engage in day-to-day political battles and resurrecting the drama-filled atmosphere of the late 1990s. On both fronts, it’s hard to argue the party’s efforts aren’t showing success. Republicans are increasingly forcing Clinton to defend her record as secretary of state, and GOP operative Karl Rove provoked a fierce response from Clintonland this week when he publicly questioned her health. Separately, Monica Lewinsky brought up old memories when the former White House intern whose extramarital dalliance with Bill Clinton led to an impeachment vote broke years of silence with a Vanity Fair tell-all.
Clinton’s hiatus from politics after stepping aside as secretary of state was always a shaky proposition—and one that always had an expiration date. She has said she'll decide whether to seek the White House again by the end of the year. But Clinton’s plan for the intervening 20 months since leaving the State Department was to avoid politics like the plague. After all, she was never more popular than when her role as top diplomat made her seem less partisan.
“The more political she is, the less she’s able to position herself as a uniting figure,” said Tim Miller, executive director of the Republican opposition research group America Rising. “The more she can be seen as nonpolitical, as private citizen world traveler, that artificially inflates her numbers."
She spent much of the last year delivering paid speeches on uplifting themes like women’s empowerment and education, while highlighting the best notes from her tenure at the State Department. Save for fundraisers for longtime friends like Terry McAulllife in Virginia and Marjorie Margolies in Pennsylvania, she’s largely avoided electoral politics, even as her speeches are carried live on cable news and attended by national political reporters. She’s been a global ambassador, human rights advocate and paid storyteller, captivating crowds on college campuses and at corporate retreats.
But in recent weeks, Clinton’s been forced to defend her record, from the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi to her department’s delayed decision to designate the group responsible for kidnapping more than 250 schoolgirls in Nigeria last month as a terrorist organization. On Wednesday, Clinton offered an unusually strong recounting of her record on Iran and Israel, telling the American Jewish Committee’s D.C. summit of her “hard choices” as secretary of state, a reference to the title of her forthcoming memoir. As the Washington Post noted, Clinton has entered a new phase, and it’s not one she wanted—at least not yet.
To be sure, the GOP effort has done little to change the overall calculus for 2016, and Republicans don't think their efforts will keep Clinton out of the race. These story-lines and controversies would have undoubtedly come up anyway—they’ve just emerged sooner, accelerating Clinton’s reemergence as a political figure.
"Now, that there is increased scrutiny on her and the Clintons are being drawn into the political fray, her numbers are starting to drop," Miller said. Indeed while a majority view her favorably, there has been a perceptible drop in Clinton's poll numbers since she left the State Department last year.
A parallel and equally vast pro-Clinton coalition of groups like Ready for Hillary and Correct the Record has mounted a valiant effort in her defense. But the volume and the velocity of the attacks launched from all corners of the GOP—especially from high profile figures like Rove and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul—has proven to be too significant for the groups, which lack the same platform, to effectively respond alone. The Clintons themselves are now playing defense.
"It's probably what passes for a win at this stage," said one longtime Democratic operative close to Clinton-world.
The anti-Hillary effort starts with the year-old research firm America Rising and the Republican National Committee. America Rising has a team devoted to Clinton, complete with a video library of her every public utterance and polling analysis. The RNC has “several” people in its communications division focused on the 2016 race, according to spokesman Sean Spicer. A separate Stop Hillary PAC has raised more than half-a-million dollars and signed up 250,000 Clinton opponents. Those groups have maintained a near-constant stream of attacks centered around her policy record.
Even without the organized effort, the Clintons' past has come back to haunt them. Lewinsky’s first-person account in Vanity Fair threw the 16-year-old drama back in the public eye. She wrote that she found Clinton’s “impulse to blame the Woman—not only me, but herself, troubling.” And Bill Clinton's Presidential Library continues to release a slow stream of documents from their time in the White House—documents that reveal little new but continue to drive countless news headlines, many negative.
And then there's Rove. Despite the 2012 shortcomings of his American Crossroads Super PAC and his embarrassing on-air refusal to accept defeat on election night, he remains a smart political operator—and he knew exactly what he was doing when he questioned Clinton's health, Republicans say. It was the equivalent of Harry Reid’s baseless charge that an informed person called him and told him months before the 2012 election that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes for a decade—a shameless and ruthless political bomb designed to force a conversation on a yet another subject Clinton would rather avoid.
The GOP is resting its 2016 hopes on dredging up the dirt of the past, plotting to take the current efforts into high gear should Clinton decide to run. What remains to be seen is whether that strategy will work in the long run.
“I’m still waiting for them to admit there was nothing to Whitewater,” Bill Clinton said Wednesday, adding yet another 1990s flashpoint to the mix. “It’s just the beginning, and they’ll get better at it.”