Hillary Clinton’s Gut Check

For the maybe-presidential candidate, this book tour is a chance to test herself.

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 10: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries conference on April 10, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Clinton is continuing on a speaking tour this week with the stop at the recycling industry trade conference.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
June 8, 2014, 6:30 a.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s much an­ti­cip­ated book tour is here, and it’s go­ing to look a lot like a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

For a 2016-hungry me­dia, the cam­paign simu­lac­rum will be a chance to look for clues to a po­ten­tial bid. For her le­gions of fans, it’s a chance to see the former sec­ret­ary of State up close and in the flesh. But for Clin­ton her­self, the tour pro­mot­ing Hard Choices will of­fer something more per­son­al: a gut check.

“What she’s go­ing to be ask­ing her­self is, am I hav­ing fun? Am I en­joy­ing this? Do I really want to do this again and po­ten­tially risk los­ing again?” said one former aide.

While Clin­ton is more fa­mil­i­ar than nearly any­one with what it’s like to run a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, a lot has changed since her last bid eight years ago: She’s older, and the per­son­al costs have nev­er been high­er. Even as she’s clearly lean­ing to­ward a run, it’s a chance for due di­li­gence.

Some of Clin­ton’s most trus­ted ad­visers have re­portedly urged her not give up her charmed life and char­it­able activ­it­ies for a gamble, while her hus­band’s former press sec­ret­ary, Mike Mc­Curry, who re­mains in con­tact with the former first lady, is con­vinced she might not jump in. “She’s go­ing to [shake hands in Iowa and New Hamp­shire] for the next two and a half years at age 65 when she could be do­ing all this great stuff on a glob­al stage?” Mc­Curry said in a re­cent in­ter­view with Real­Clear­Polit­ics.

The book tour — with massive crowds, a sched­ule of 20-plus ap­pear­ances in three weeks, heaps of me­dia scru­tiny, and a Ready for Hil­lary bus plastered with her name on it — will give Clin­ton a fresh taste of life on the trail, and help her team hone her mes­sage and op­er­a­tions.

Even if Clin­ton’s book tour is more com­mer­cial than polit­ic­al — she’s steer­ing clear of polit­ic­ally im­port­ant states and mak­ing two stops in Canada — the ex­per­i­ence will be in­form­at­ive, said Joe Trippi, who man­aged Howard Dean’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

“She’s go­ing to have the abil­ity to test the wa­ters, without hav­ing to ac­tu­ally run,” Trippi said. “She’s go­ing to get asked all the ques­tions. It really is go­ing to give her a good idea of what’s com­ing.”

When Clin­ton entered the race for Sen­ate in 1999, she em­barked on a “listen­ing tour” across New York that helped in­form her run. “The book tour will give her an op­por­tun­ity to get to a lot of places that she hasn’t been in a while,” an­oth­er former staffer said. “That en­er­gizes her, re­con­nects her, and helps hone her mes­sage.”

Clin­ton’s 10-city book tour sup­port­ing It Takes a Vil­lage in early 1996 helped set up her hus­band’s reelec­tion cam­paign, and in her 2003 mem­oir, Liv­ing His­tory, she writes about cher­ish­ing the ex­per­i­ence.

Dur­ing a month when the Clin­ton White House was un­der in­tense scru­tiny from in­vest­ig­at­ors, the “only bright mo­ments” came while pro­mot­ing the book. “The crowds were huge and the audi­ences were warm and sup­port­ive, fur­ther evid­ence of the dis­con­nect between Wash­ing­ton and the rest of the na­tion,” she wrote in Liv­ing His­tory.

But she also writes about pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns as long, gruel­ing af­fairs un­der­cut by “lies and ma­nip­u­la­tion.” “Des­pite all the good ad­vice we had re­ceived and all the time Bill and I had spent in the polit­ic­al arena, we were un­pre­pared for the hard­ball polit­ics and re­lent­less scru­tiny that comes with a run for the pres­id­ency,” she wrote of the 1992 cam­paign.

The same could be said of her own cam­paign in 2008. But Chris Le­Hane, a vet­er­an of the Bill Clin­ton White House, said the early tim­ing of the book re­lease, which al­lows her set her nar­rat­ive be­fore any­one can, and its well-or­ches­trated roll out, shows she’s bet­ter pre­pared. “It cer­tainly sug­gests that she has taken the les­sons of 2008 and ap­plied them,” he said.

Book tours have long been prov­ing grounds for pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. For Barack Obama, the throng of young people lin­ing up to see him — and in some cases camp­ing overnight on the streets — helped con­vince him to take the plunge.

For Colin Pow­ell, a tour sup­port­ing his much an­ti­cip­ated 1995 book both pushed him to ser­i­ously con­sider a run and even­tu­ally helped him choose to aban­don it. Bill Smul­len, a long­time aide who ac­com­pan­ied Pow­ell on the tour, said they were “over­whelmed” by the at­ten­tion and en­cour­age­ment the former chair­man of the Joint Chiefs re­ceived. The out­pour­ing made him ser­i­ously con­sider run­ning, but after two weeks mulling it over, Pow­ell de­cided he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to do what was ne­ces­sary to run, Smul­len said.

When he re­leased his book No Apo­logy in 2010, Mitt Rom­ney, like Clin­ton, had run and lost once be­fore and was con­sid­er­ing an­oth­er run. “We were very con­scious of the fact that this was go­ing to be a pro­ject that would of course have an im­pact on his con­sid­er­a­tion on run­ning,” said Rom­ney aide Kev­in Mad­den. But mostly, Mad­den said, the book was an op­por­tun­ity for the former gov­ernor to pro­mote his policy vis­ion for the coun­try.

And it will likely be the same for Clin­ton, whose book is ex­pec­ted to weave her per­son­al ex­per­i­ences as sec­ret­ary of State in with some policy pre­scrip­tions.

In any case, Bob Shrum, who worked on the cam­paigns of both Al Gore and John Kerry, says Clin­ton thrives in pub­lic set­tings like a book tour. “She’s an in­stinct­ive pub­lic per­son­al­ity,” he said. “I don’t see this as a tri­al run, I see this as the first phase of the cam­paign.”

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