Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago on June 13. Photo: REUTERS/Jim Young
I don't think Hillary Clinton ever intended to be Barbara Walters' Most Fascinating Person of 2013. Indeed, this year was supposed to be slow and quiet. Clinton stepped down as secretary of state early in the year, took some time off, hit the lucrative lecture circuit, worked with the Clinton Foundation, and has generally kept her head down. Right about now, if the political calendar had any influence, Clinton would be deciding whether to run for president in 2016. Her friends, allies, and bundlers are organized and waiting. To build solid campaigns in Democratic primary states, Clinton needs as little lead time as any potential candidate in recent memory.
All fine. But what's she going to run on?
One theory of the case assigns Clinton the baggage of everything people don't like about politics. She's been tethered to Washington since arriving from Arkansas in 1992. Maybe Americans will instinctively associate her name with political calculation and not being very real, even if they've come to admire her. This view discounts the notion that her public persona has evolved significantly since she left her husband's White House. Once a Clinton, always a Clinton. Her "oh, this is who she really is" personality, fundamentally drilled into the back of our minds through years of give, take, and right-wing conspiracies, is the biggest obstacle she faces. The solution: Run as the anti-Hillary. That is, take the unflattering caricature of Hillary Clinton and reverse-engineer. Defy expectations. Show people, through the type of campaign she'll run, that she's open, warm, sincere. That she's different.
I think there's something to this, but I also think it discounts, in order of importance:
(1) The fact that a much larger percentage of the Democratic electorate will know her from her days as a senator or afterward. They don't see her as Bill's wife and never have. I mean, of course they remember the Clinton presidency, but they were kids then. The Hillary they saw, as voters, was sui generis.
(2) Running a personality-based campaign is next to impossible because the media ecosphere will instantly pop the balloon. That's what we do. We — the political media, both professionals and fanboys — are a bunch of over-caffeinated kids at Chucky Cheese. You wanna run "as" something, we're gonna pin-prick it to death, and suddenly anything a candidate does is instantly phony because it's analyzed as a strategy. If Clinton tries to be warm and accessible, the headlines will not reflect her warmnousity and accessitude. The headlines, uniformly, will be: "Clinton tries to be warm and accessible." Always, and forever. What's a candidate to do? Accept this as a god-given reality, and just be ornery when you're ornery, and warm when you want to be warm.
Clinton's opponents and the press have plenty of cud to chew on. And Clinton — here I think she has to summon superhuman powers because it would be hard for any of us — has to be extremely humble about and extremely careful about what's held in the grand bank of political arrears.
Humility. Begin with Benghazi: A full explanation of what she knew and when will be necessary, even though she has already made such an accounting; the role of her close advisers in protecting Clinton must also be acknowledged and, if necessary, apologized for. If she doesn't do this, early, it becomes a distraction. It ties her to one of President Obama's real liabilities: governance. It might seem absolutely nuts, crazy, stupid, to suggest that her counselor, Cheryl Mills, would have done anything inappropriate, but the only egos here will keep this issue alive are those of Clinton's and her advisers. Once she's given her accounting, on her terms, she'll be able to move on and talk about what she wants more easily.
Then there's her age and health. Humor, self-deprecation, and hard work will pacify doubters and keep the media from finding a way to implant doubts.
Getting ahead of artificial gossip storylines is a must. These include: "A third term for Bill Clinton?" and "Is the former president behaving himself?" The Clinton campaign of 2008 dealt with these stealthily. The Clinton campaign of 2016 needs to make them irrelevant; 2008 tactics won't work in 2016. We all co-evolve.
Substantive critiques of Clinton are already flying in from the party's anti-corporatist left. Clinton can't be dilatory about moving away from the symbols and policies associated with Wall Street coteries, her husband's economic team, or Tim Geithner. The activist base of the party will seize on some single issue that most exacerbates the widest distinction between two poles, and Clinton has to get on the right side of that issue, whatever it is. I predict that ideological entrepreneurs will try to make life as miserable for Democrats as, say, the anti-immigration right did for Republicans in 2012. Clinton cannot fly above these folks. She needs to incorporate them, or enough of them. It is here where she can begin to make choices that move her away from Obama's policies.
There are plenty of markers to lay down early, but there are plenty of subjects to avoid for as long as possible. We don't know how the Iranian nuclear deal will play out. We don't know whether the NSA reforms will be accepted by the public. We don't know what the economy will look like, and whether voters, and Democrats, will feel confident about the future. Clinton can adapt to the necessary vagueness by avoiding any over promises.
All this is housekeeping. What's at the core of her run?
It could be this: It's time to get to work. It's time to get things done. And I can do it, because I've done it. She'll set a couple of broad goals, like fixing health care, tax reform, certainly something involving fundamentally and transformationally addressing economic inequalities, and she'll hammer and hammer and hammer them in. If she's going to imprint a subtle message, it's probably this: What Obama wants to do is broadly popular. For some reason, he couldn't get it done. I'm going to expand upon his agenda in some areas, make adjustments in others, because the country is at a different place and I'm a different person, and pursue my own policies where I think I would make the most impact.
But also, this: Political reform. Bashing big money interests on the right is a given, especially because Democratic activists now have a very coherent meta-narrative about how the corporatist right has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams (anti-regulation, gutting campaign finance, cutting and bashing government). Clinton's reforms will drive Washington back onto the road. She has a much more visceral feel for politics than Obama, and because she enjoys it more, I think she'll be better at it. She will take opportunities where Obama would not have and make others. Now, yes, the country wants to throw daggers at Washington, and yes, Chris Christie will run as the "got-it-done" reformer from New Jersey.
Politics is never not going to be ugly again, at least not in our lifetimes. But Americans don't really mind ugly politics when stuff gets done. Clinton's agenda as a candidate cannot ignore the obvious association she has with Washington. Her campaign must reject the false dichotomy of insiders and outsiders. It must replace that template with one that acknowledges reality, and by force of will, shows us what a credible, accountable, and efficient governing machine would look like.
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