Cast about for Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2016, and there aren’t a whole lot of names that come up other than Hillary Clinton. Most of her potential opponents have already endorsed her as-of-yet-non-existent candidacy. And the few weighing runs aren’t serious threats, such as former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
(MAGAZINE: Can anyone stop Hillary?)
But if the epic 2008 primary fight was any indication, Clinton’s greatest challengein a potential presidential bid isn’t another candidate—it’s her own candidacy. She entered the 2008 race as the front-runner and the campaign was hers to lose. Now, as it was then, she already wears the thorny crown of inevitability. But she has yet to show that she’s learned from the mistakes of her last campaign debacle. Here are six reasons Clinton might be her own worst enemy.
Comfort breeds laziness. Last time around, Clinton didn’t log the hours of retail politics needed to win Iowa, and then was shocked when she lost it. A month before the caucuses, she’d been to less than half of Iowa’s 99 counties—compared to John Edwards, who’d visited all 99, and Barack Obama who’d been to 68. “Part of the reason she lost the last time was because she ran as if she were the incumbent and she campaigned from behind the rope line as if she was in the White House,” says one of Clinton’s top fundraisers. “So she needs a complete attitude shift.”
Out of touch
In 2008, Michelle Obama pooh-poohed the idea that her husband would run again in 2012 if he failed in 2008. Why? Because they would be too far removed from reality by then and not in touch with everyday Americans. Mitt Romney was hammered in 2012 for saying that while he didn’t watch NASCAR, he had a lot of “great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
And Clinton should know, since her husband used the presidential bubble against George H. W. Bush during the 1992 campaign. Clinton mocked Bush for not knowing the price of milk. So, perhaps Hillary should not be admitting that she hasn’t driven a car since 1996, as she did at the National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in New Orleans last month.
A tiny inner circle
Her inner circle is too insular and protective. Part of Clinton’s problem in 2008 was the fact that no one wanted to break bad news to her. The Clintons have always valued loyalty over competence. That proved fatal in 2008. “She needs to get professional people to run her campaign and not have people from the seventh floor at State or people from the East Wing to be running things,” says another longtime Clinton fundraiser.
An enormous outer circle
The anticipation of a Clinton candidacy has reached fever-pitch levels inside the Beltway, where hundreds of former staffers are jockeying to get in on the ground floor of what they hope will become Clinton’s campaign. Already there are four distinct entities—Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC which will handle big media buys; Ready for Hillary, which is building grassroots support; Correct the Record, which bats down GOP attacks; and the Clintons’ longtime policy arm, the Center for American Progress. Personnel from some or all of these would be absorbed into a Clinton campaign.
All told, there are already dozens of staffers one could argue that indirectly work for Clinton. One of her biggest problems in 2008 was an unwieldy, disorganized staff that spent as much time attacking each other as they did attacking her competition. She looks in line to run a similar staff-heavy campaign in 2016. “It’s kind of the Oklahoma land rush for Democratic consultants right now,” says Erik Smith, head of Blue Engine Media, a Democratic consulting group. “Everyone’s trying to get their territory. It’s a bunch of basketball players trying to guard places at the hoop and no one’s even got the ball. … There are so many people so excited about it and it’s just so hard to control. Particularly when many have access to the press.”
Another 2008 problem was Clinton’s press operation. Her communications team walled her off from the media and treated every unsolicited inquiry—even if it was just for a t-shirt to help write a story on campaign schwag—as hostile. And yet plenty of her staff found time to anonymously trash one another to the media. By the time Clinton herself broke through those ivory walls to do shots of Crown Royal in April in Indiana, she was already well on her way to losing the nomination. If last year’s episode in which Clinton hit her head and had a blood clot was any indication, her press operation hasn’t changed much. Clinton’s people closed ranks around her and their inability to reassure the media and their miserly control of information about her health led to rampant speculation that Clinton’s condition was far worse than it was. Her handlers remain suspicious and hostile to most inquiries, especially any involving a potential campaign.
Defining Herself as a Candidate
In 2007, Mark Penn, Clinton’s dark arts pollster, argued she should run as a “responsible progressive”—a sober moderate appealing to a right-leaning center disgusted by George W. Bush. Not expecting too serious a challenge from the left, staking out the middle ground would make the general election pivot easy. She was not Hillary, the cuckolded wife. She wasn’t Hillary, the author of Hillarycare. Nor was she Mrs. Clinton, or Ms. Rodham Clinton. As all her signs declared, she was simply “Hillary.”
But critics say she forsook the mantle of change and became the de facto incumbent in a cycle where voters hungered for change. She didn’t promote the historic nature of her campaign until it was too late. “Her greatest strength and greatest weakness is the same thing, which is the value of the name Clinton, it gets knee jerk a lot of support and a lot of opposition,” Smith says. “She’s such a well known commodity so the biggest challenge is to get a second look from a lot of people.” Depending on how Obama’s next three years play out. Clinton again could be struggling to define herself as the candidate for change when she’s so closely tied to the Obama administration.