It's like deja vu all over again.
Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton was seen as the Democratic Party's all-but-inevitable presidential nominee. She was well on her way to winning a second term as senator from New York, and fatigue with the perceived incompetence of the George W. Bush administration gripped the nation. Democrats thought a return to the halcyon days of the Bill Clinton administration would appeal to a broad section of the electorate, where both Clintons remained personally popular. No one else in either party looked like they could compete with the Clinton juggernaut.
When it came time to actually run the 2008 race, Hillary Clinton looked less like an inevitability and more like someone unprepared to handle the rigors of a campaign and all the public scrutiny that came with it. And eight years later, that pattern has emerged again.
The launch of a political memoir gives a prospective candidate enormous advantages, especially someone with a long public track record like Clinton's. Even on controversial issues, the long format allows an author to craft a narrative that will later serve as the basis of debate, especially in media interviews. The strategy is called "shaping the battlefield," and it helps not only to set the narrative context of questions that come ("On page 225, you write that…"), but also prepares the candidate to handle the topics with at least some easily recalled talking points.
In addition, the book itself stokes interest in the coming campaign, particularly in the case of Hillary Clinton. Any memoir by a retiring or retired Cabinet member that gets published during the tenure of the president she served will grab headlines and attention anyway, and the political tension between Barack Obama and Clinton's ambitions make it even more attractive. It doesn't matter that the book Hard Choices has largely been panned as dull and unrevealing, because its ultimate purpose is to generate interest in and leverage for Hillary Clinton.
At first, it seemed to work. Before the book even hit stores, newspapers and television shows dissected the leaked excerpts that made their way to high-profile outlets. The topics touched on controversies that Clinton had avoided discussing, such as Benghazi and the lack of foreign-policy accomplishments during her tenure as secretary of State, but those topics would have come up anyway, and the Clinton team knows it. Their effort to get in front of those debates and frame them in the narrative context most favorable to Hillary Clinton's political prospects largely paid off.
That strategy fell apart in a hurry this week. The Clinton team chose ABC's Diane Sawyer as their lead interview for Hillary's book rollout, a reporter/anchor with enough news credibility to overcome any sense of getting softballs, but without a track record of having a real killer instinct either. One might have expected that a candidate with as much experience in handling the media could have managed an in-depth interview with Sawyer, but the interview blew up in her face.
Take, for instance, Clinton's fumbling of the Benghazi issue. Sawyer pressed hard on the topic, but in a somewhat different direction than the public debate, focusing on the lack of security for the facility and Clinton's responsibility for the failure. The consulate in Benghazi did not meet State Department requirements, which should have meant that any deviation had to be approved by the secretary of State herself. Furthermore, the security issue had involved both the State and Defense Departments, which should have involved both Cabinet officials at some point. Sawyer asked, "Is there anything you personally should have been doing to make it safer in Benghazi?" Clinton passed the buck.
"What I did do," Hillary responded, "was give very direct instructions to those people who have the expertise and experience in security." When Sawyer pressed again on her personal involvement in security for the high-risk facility, Clinton again shrugged off the responsibility. "I'm not equipped to sit and look at blueprints to determine where the blast walls need to be or where the reinforcements need to be," she replied.
When Sawyer continued pressing Clinton, she finally stated, "I take responsibility, but I was not making security decisions." Eric Wemple at The Washington Post marveled at how Sawyer managed to "destroy" Clinton in that exchange. "For the record," Wemple dryly observed, "possible-presidential-candidates-in-abeyance should never attach conjunctions to their declarations of responsibility-taking." He also credited Sawyer with changing the narrative structure of the debate on Benghazi in a direction that clearly doesn't favor the presumed candidate — which is exactly what the memoir launch is supposed to prevent.
Nor was that the only stumble for the woman who has had nearly two years to prepare for the spotlight. During the interview, Clinton inexplicably tried to claim that her post-White House years were a hardship, after Sawyer questioned the propriety of her huge speaking fees. "We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt," Clinton said. "We struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea's education, you know, it was not easy."
This claim drew more derision than her have-it-both-ways dodge on responsibility for security in Benghazi. Their finances were healthy enough for the Clintons to buy a house in New York to establish her residency for the first Senate campaign in 2000. By the end of that year, the newly elected senator got an $8 million payday for her first memoir, Living History. Between 2000 and 2007, the Clintons would earn more than $100 million, which may not be easy, but certainly isn't the kind of "struggle" that most Americans would know.
It's the kind of gaffe that one might expect a rookie political candidate to make — not a supposedly seasoned and prepared professional. Unforced errors in the first mild test of her candidacy? Reminds me of the 2008 cycle — and it should have Democrats wondering about her ability to go the distance... again.