Nothing is certain for Hillary Clinton in 2016
We have reached, believe it or not, the first crucial moment in the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has written a book. It will be launched, with Vesuvian hoopla, on June 10. Her schedule will be incredible for the weeks thereafter–an hour interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, for starters; Good Morning America the next morning; a town meeting with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. There will be joint appearances with Bill and Chelsea. And attention, Costco shoppers! Hillary Clinton will be signing copies of Hard Choices at Costco’s Arlington, Va., store on Saturday, June 14.
We are sure to be smothered by Hillary (or Hillary!, as an old campaign button had it) well past the summer solstice. There will be reviews and nonstop attempts to tease policy and controversy from the substance of the book, which concerns her time as Secretary of State. Her account of the Benghazi controversy has already been leaked. In it, she says she was “ultimately responsible” for the insufficient security at the consulate there, even though it was well below her pay grade. Happily, she fights back against the bizarre Republican campaign to find a scandal amid the tragedy. This is called getting out in front of the story, a common political strategy. Hard Choices is, like almost everything else Clinton, a campaign. How it is promoted and received will say a lot about the campaign to come, if it is to come.
As always, there will be a festering low road of speculation about Clinton herself, her health, her hair, her husband. And as always, a squalid tabloid underbuzz: Did she ask Chelsea to become pregnant to give her campaign a soft, grandmotherly tinge? Will new Whitewater papers reveal that the real estate deal was really a conspiracy to sell heroin? Monica Lewinsky has already reappeared and disappeared, coming out of seclusion to tell her story for the umpteenth time. The Clintons have long held an unprecedented primacy in academic journals and supermarket tabloids. That’s why we can’t take our eyes off them. They have big thoughts; they are creative policymakers who balance budgets; they care about the average guy, his widow and orphan. And yet their private world often seems laced with circus-sideshow overreach, both purposeful and accidental: Bill Clinton abandoned McDonald’s to become a vegan. Hillary’s top aide, Huma Abedin, married the tweeting exhibitionist Anthony Weiner.
Inevitably, there will be political speculation. Does this book mean she is running? Does her book tour prove that she “takes all the oxygen” out of the Democratic race? Is she “inevitable”? Is the Benghazi chapter “enough” to quiet the controversy? Will she learn to love the media–and will the media stop being so trashball in its Clinton coverage?
As a veteran Clinton watcher, I approach the coming spectacle with a combination of obsession, exhaustion, dread and exhilaration. This is going to be horrible fun–and crucial, as the Clintons always are. If she runs.
For the sake of magazine sales, let’s say she’s running. She’s got it locked, right? She’s the Democratic nominee at the very least, right? Ask any Republican and they’ll tell you she’s a cinch. They’ve already started their general-election campaign against her. Karl Rove is speculating that the fall she took at the end of her time as Secretary of State caused traumatic brain injury. Others fantasize that she conspired to have Lewinsky tell her story now, to get it out of the way–as if anything could. And congressional Republicans have dragged Benghazi back into public view, with stacked hearings that will amount, no doubt, to a hill of beans. Most Democrats think that she’ll not only waltz to the nomination but also crush anyone the Republicans put up, except maybe Jeb Bush–and hasn’t the Bush family saga become a moldy oldie over the decades?
But wait a minute. Aren’t the Clintons approaching their sell-by date too? Aren’t we about to become tired of their personal and policy baggage and retinue of overcaffeinated too-loyal aides spewing talking points on cable news? It can and will also be argued that the Clintons are out of touch with millennials and their handheld virtual society, out of touch with the growing populism of the Democratic Party, too closely aligned with Wall Street and untrammeled free trade, too hawkish, too closely aligned with an unpopular incumbent President. (Of course, Obama could easily rebound.) It can and will be argued, as always, that Hillary is stiff, programmed, overcautious. Exhibit A: her book-tour schedule.
It is possible, maybe even probable, that all these arguments will have the same effect on the Clinton juggernaut as a flea on a rhinoceros. Clinton is said to be the best-prepared politician to run for President in our lifetime, and that is probably true. She knows the issues, foreign and domestic; no one will outwonk her. She has the potential to run the table when it comes to big donors and endorsements. She has a presidential temperament–prudent, patient and tough. She is both funny and wise: ask anyone, Republican or Democrat, who has ever sat in a policy meeting with her. She started as a lousy stump politician but became a real trouper in the crucible of the 2008 primary campaign against Obama, especially in Pennsylvania, where she started hanging out in bars and bowling alleys and taught white working-class males that she was no quitter. Indeed, the lessons she learned in the 2008 primaries may be her quiet competitive advantage in 2016. Finally, she is a woman–an aspect of her candidacy that was foolishly underplayed by her advisers in 2008. As such, she lives in history.
Some presidential campaigns are about inevitability. Others are about energy. The best have both, but it’s rare: inevitability tends to crush energy. It makes candidates cautious. In 2000, George W. Bush raised a ton of money and secured a ton of endorsements. He was skating toward the nomination, according to the polls. “It’s amazing how close we came to losing,” says Matthew Dowd, who worked for Bush. “We were hanging on by our fingernails after McCain beat us by 18 points in New Hampshire, but McCain made some mistakes in South Carolina,” and Bush turned vicious, “and we were lucky to win.” Lest we forget: an inevitable candidate named Hillary Clinton was blindsided by Barack Obama’s energy in 2008.
Obama may be her greatest challenge in 2016 as well. It’s been reported that she has scrubbed Hard Choices for any negative references to the President. But any candidate following a two-term President has to figure out a “kinder, gentler” way to distinguish herself from her predecessor. People always want a change, a fact Al Gore and John McCain found out the hard way. It will be trickier if Obama remains unpopular. Inevitability is reality’s first casualty. If Obama makes a big mistake overseas or the economy flops, Clinton’s first job will be to say what she’d do differently, without offending the Democratic base who’ll remain loyal to the President no matter what.
Even if Obama successfully navigates his last two years in office, Clinton is likely to face more than one energy candidate in 2016. Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, profiled by Michael Scherer on page 36, is as entertaining as a presidential candidate should be allowed to be, and substantive too. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a new book out–aha! (perhaps)–and is wowing the Democratic left at their partisan powwows. And former Virginia Senator Jim Webb–who also has a new book out, aha!–has not ruled out a presidential campaign. All three would challenge Clinton from the populist left, a force that is growing noisier within the party, if not more populous. The moderate governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, probably won’t run if Clinton does.
Any of the three populists could run an exciting and perhaps even successful campaign against Clinton. She has real vulnerabilities and, yes, hard choices to make on policies she is assumed to have inherited from her husband, especially regarding the primacy of Wall Street and free trade. Bill Clinton essentially deregulated Wall Street while he was President–repealing the Glass-Steagall laws and refusing to regulate the exotic derivatives that helped cause the stock-market crash of 2008. Will Hillary Clinton move away from those positions? Is she willing to walk away from the egregious buckraking and speechmaking she and her husband have done with the global megarich in the service of the Clinton Global Initiative? “If not, she’s red meat in this new age of economic populism,” says David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic consultant who has been close to Jim Webb in the past.
I recently asked Webb what he saw when he looked at America a year after he left the Senate. “Groundhog Day,” he said. Nothing had changed. In his book I Heard My Country Calling, Webb writes about a country “governed by a club of insiders who manipulate public opinion in order to serve the interests of hidden elites who hold the reins of power.” That could be a call to arms for Democratic populists and Tea Partyers alike. It is a bit over the top–hidden elites?–but it is a voice to be reckoned with in a ticked-off America.
There is also a bubbling-up of what the historian Fred Siegel calls gentry liberals, the old alliance of guilt-ridden limousine riders and (mostly African-American) minority groups who are itchy to file grievances again after 50 years of remarkable progress. A 2003 Brookings Institution study showed that if you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have no more than two babies and have a job (any job, and there are plenty out there), the chances of your living in poverty are 3.7%. Those sorts of stats–and there are plenty of others like them–are downplayed by a new generation of African-American activists and by mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio, who has lifted some of the work requirements imposed by Bill Clinton for people on welfare. The left argues that times have changed. The economy has changed. It’s harder to get a job. Will Clinton modify her long-held positions on welfare and the importance of two-parent families?
Then there is her foreign policy. Robert Gates’ fabulously candid memoir about his time as Secretary of Defense has some juicy tidbits–like the fact that Clinton stood to his right on the Afghan surge in 2009. He favored adding 30,000 more troops; Clinton and General Stan McChrystal favored 40,000. Her support of the war in Iraq, except for the 2007 surge there, is also on the record–but Gates has her admitting that her opposition to the surge was “political.”
That is probably the ultimate argument against Clinton. She can be prohibitively “political” and far more cautious than she needs to be. The trouble is, presidential campaigns can’t be managed like book tours. They tend to be overwhelmed by events and trivialities. There is a constant gotcha contest with the press. In a recent Politico article about Clinton and the press, one of her advisers is quoted: “Look, she hates you. Period. That is not going to change.” To make things worse, her top communications adviser, Phillippe Reines, argued that Clinton didn’t really hate the press. She brought bagels to the back of the bus. But bringing bagels to the back of the bus is an embarrassingly transparent ploy. Bringing candor to the back of the bus might be a little more successful. I’ve seen her candor more than once, but always off the record. That will have to change. If Hillary Clinton hopes to succeed, she’s going to have to drop the veil–spontaneously, quite possibly in a crucial moment, like a debate–and trust the public to accept who she really is. Absent that, there is no such thing as inevitability.