Hillary Clinton — former first lady, senator, presidential candidate, and secretary of State — is terrible at campaigning. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom that has emerged from her recent publicity tour to support her book Hard Choices, which was widely perceived to be a trial balloon for a possible presidential run in 2016. Her detractors cite her painful interview with NPR's Terry Gross on the topic of gay marriage; her strange comment about being "dead broke" after her husband left the White House; and her second-guessing of President Obama's dovish foreign policy, which has alarmed some important constituencies in the Democratic base.
The doubts about Clinton's acumen on the campaign trail may be valid, though they are a tad overblown. But even if Clinton is a wooden campaigner, it probably wouldn't make a difference in 2016.
Here is a handy rundown of all the pundits who have concluded that Clinton couldn't campaign her way out of a wet paper bag. "Clinton has never been a natural politician," Politico confidently declared, saying she "remains far more gaffe-prone than many believe." Ezra Klein wrote that Clinton's "vaguely embarrassing interviews" means she will have to "spend the next two years relearning how to run a national campaign." And MSNBC's John Flowers expressed astonishment that reporters had forgotten "the fact that Hillary is a terrible, miserable, never-once-very-good campaigner."
Clinton certainly was not at her finest these past weeks, creating controversies that she could have avoided by being more careful. But even still, is she really that abysmal a campaigner compared to, say, Mitt Romney? Or Rick "what was the third one" Perry? Jeb Bush had his own problems when he rolled out his book on immigration. And Rand Paul just showed that his method for dealing with people of different political persuasions is to literally run away from them.
Then there's Joe Biden, whose perpetual used car salesman smile can't hide the fact that he is the most innovative and industrious gaffe-maker of them all. That's just Biden being Biden, you might say, but the vice president happens to represent Clinton's only plausible competition in a Democratic primary. So when it comes to potential presidential candidates, she easily makes the top tier of campaigners.
Granted, she is no Bill Clinton. She is not Barack Obama circa 2008 either. But the conventional wisdom toward the end of their titanic primary was that Hillary was the one with the common touch — sharing a cry with supporters, throwing back shots of whiskey, cracking glass ceilings — while Obama was a tricky usurper who coldly hijacked the primary process with math and who was the worst bowler in America to boot.
And we haven't even mentioned the enormous reservoir of popular good will Clinton would enjoy as the only female in the 2016 field. (Before you get started, Elizabeth Warren isn't running. She just isn't.)
But let's set all that aside. Let's assume, for the sake of hypothesis, that Hillary Clinton is in possession of Al Gore-levels of political awkwardness. Could a Republican beat her?
Probably not. A genuine moderate would have to survive the GOP primary process without lurching wildly to the right, which, despite the ardent prayers of a small band of reformicons, is unlikely to happen, as Damon Linker has convincingly argued at The Week. Furthermore, the House's almost comical attempt to address the recent humanitarian crisis at the border — in which right-wingers like Michele Bachmann openly crowed that they had bullied the leadership into accepting their extreme terms — shows that you don't have to be a political genius to figure out where the real power lies in the GOP.
That means Clinton will enter the 2016 field with all the formidable demographic advantages that Obama enjoyed in 2012. She will face an electorate that basically wants what the Democrats want on a host of issues, including immigration reform, income inequality, tax reform, higher education, and gay marriage. Americans may have grown tired of Obama, but the policy proposals gathering dust in his desk are sure to be brandished anew come 2016 — proposals that are both bolder and fairer than what the leading reformers in the GOP have proposed.
Can Clinton mess all that up? Anything is possible. But it's useful to remember that Obama didn't exactly run a sparkling re-election campaign. He was trounced by Mitt Romney in the first debate. He often looked listless and fed up with the howling psycho-carnival that is the modern presidential campaign. The unemployment rate was at 7.8 percent in November 2012. And yet Obama easily — easily — defeated Romney.
That's the electoral reality Republicans face. No gaffe is going to erase it.