Hillary Clinton Just Won’t Go Away

The expected 2016 Democratic frontrunner is popping up everywhere, giving her challengers (and haters) way too much material to work with.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves as she arrives to receive the Liberty Medal during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, in Philadelphia. The honor is given annually to an individual who displays courage and conviction while striving to secure liberty for people worldwide. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Sept. 11, 2013, 8 a.m.

PHIL­ADELPHIA — One of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s biggest chal­lenges as she weighs an­oth­er pres­id­en­tial bid: time.

If she runs in 2016, there will be 45 long months, nearly four years, between Elec­tion Day and her de­par­ture as sec­ret­ary of State with a fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing in the mid-60s. Not since Ron­ald Re­agan has a suc­cess­ful pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate been out of pub­lic of­fice for years be­fore win­ning the White House, and that was long be­fore the In­ter­net opened the door to in­stant­an­eous at­tacks and counter-at­tacks. In Clin­ton’s sev­en months as a private cit­izen, the no-holds-barred scru­tiny has shown no sign of let­ting up, cov­er­ing everything from her over­sight of the at­tacks in Benghazi to her tin-eared post on Twit­ter last week about swim­mer Di­ana Nyad amid a Syr­ia-crazed news cycle.

Former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush, an­oth­er closely sur­veilled po­ten­tial con­tender in 2016, mocked the feed­ing frenzy Tues­day night when he presen­ted Clin­ton with the “Liberty Medal” award from the Na­tion­al Con­sti­tu­tion Cen­ter. “Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton is out of of­fice. So am I. I’m not sure what people ex­pect will hap­pen here to­night.”

Mu­tu­ally as­sured (elect­or­al) de­struc­tion?

Per­haps an­oth­er time. On Tues­day, in front of a bi­par­tis­an audi­ence along In­de­pend­ence Mall, Clin­ton re­it­er­ated her sup­port for mil­it­ary ac­tion against the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment, des­pite op­pos­i­tion from six out of 10 Amer­ic­ans. No one knows bet­ter than Clin­ton, haunted in the 2008 Demo­crat­ic primary by her 2002 vote for the war in Ir­aq, how the past can be­come pro­logue. Pos­sible Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers in 2016, in­clud­ing Flor­ida Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Ken­tucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, op­pose mil­it­ary strikes. Pre­sum­ably, a Demo­crat­ic chal­lenge com­ing from her left — Are you listen­ing Mar­tin O’Mal­ley? Of course you are! — would be op­posed to mil­it­ary ac­tion as well.

“We really don’t know how this is go­ing to play out, and it is a huge risk polit­ic­ally, but she does what she thinks is right in the mo­ment and the polit­ics will fol­low,” said Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Maria Car­dona, who worked on Clin­ton’s last cam­paign. “She prob­ably took that last poll as sec­ret­ary of State and framed it, know­ing that she will nev­er see those num­bers again. Once you start liv­ing in the polit­ic­al cycle, your num­bers come back to earth.”

Clin­ton can con­trol her pub­lic pro­file to some ex­tent, though both sup­port­ers and de­tract­ors ac­know­ledge that there would be con­stant nit­pick­ing even if she tried to keep quiet. On re­cord in sup­port of arm­ing rebels fight­ing the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment while at the State De­part­ment, it would have been hard for her to keep mum dur­ing the cur­rent crisis.

She has more lee­way, however, when it comes to oth­er pub­lic ap­pear­ances, and on Tues­day, she found her­self in an awk­ward spot: giv­ing a speech just an hour be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama ad­dressed Syr­ia’s use of chem­ic­al weapons on na­tion­al tele­vi­sion. That her re­marks had once been billed as a policy speech on a con­tro­ver­sial top­ic — the bal­ance between na­tion­al se­cur­ity and civil liber­ties — en­sured that the polit­ics would over­power her re­marks.

Sure enough, a con­ser­vat­ive su­per PAC, Amer­ica Rising, pre-empted her speech with an e-mail blast at­tack­ing her re­cord on se­cur­ity and pri­vacy is­sues that was picked up by a tele­vi­sion net­work’s web site. No mat­ter that she ended up giv­ing a non-par­tis­an speech that pro­moted “act­ive cit­izen­ship” and put mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in the con­text of Amer­ic­an his­tory.

“As a polit­ic­al op­pon­ent who is highly crit­ic­al of her, if she wasn’t say­ing any­thing, I’d be try­ing to smoke her out,” said Tim Miller, an Amer­ica Rising spokes­man who has worked on Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns and for the na­tion­al party. “Her vul­ner­ab­il­ity is that she do­ing all of sorts of things that a can­did­ate would do without the polit­ic­al ma­chinery to pro­tect her day in and day out.”

Clin­ton could have been talk­ing about her own in­ab­il­ity to stay out of the pub­lic eye when she said Tues­day: “They knew that in a demo­cracy, cit­izens can­not sit on the side­lines, that we have to get in­to the arena,’ as Teddy Roosevelt called it, and par­ti­cip­ate in the de­bates that shape our coun­try’s fu­ture. Some­times it can get pretty noisy, but that is the Amer­ic­an way.”

And in fact, the dis­tract­ing shouts of pro­test­ers could be heard throughout her speech.

For dif­fer­ent reas­ons, some Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives would also prefer her to be less vis­ible. Every time the su­per PAC en­cour­aging her cam­paign rolls out an en­dorse­ment, every time she gives a speech, she is of­fer­ing fresh am­muni­tion to her crit­ics.

“Our sup­port­ers pay at­ten­tion when Hil­lary makes a speech and every time she does they double down on their sup­port for us and why we need to do all we can to stop Hil­lary,” said Gar­rett Mar­quis, a spokes­man for the Stop Hil­lary PAC, which he said has raised about $250,000 and col­lec­ted thou­sands of sig­na­tures. “There’s no doubt that when she puts her­self in the spot­light, it’s an op­por­tun­ity for us to com­mu­nic­ate our mes­sage.”

On the flip side, the Clin­ton-lov­ing dig­nit­ar­ies in­vited to the ce­re­mony at the Na­tion­al Con­sti­tu­tion Cen­ter didn’t re­strain them­selves either. “Some of us can’t wait to cel­eb­rate the first wo­man pres­id­ent of the United States,” gushed Uni­versity of Pennsylvania Pres­id­ent Amy Guttman. An­oth­er pre-en­dorse­ment came from Phil­adelphia May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter: “I fully ex­pect she will break an­oth­er bar­ri­er in four years.”

There are ad­vant­ages to a long run-up to a po­ten­tial cam­paign. Clin­ton can raise the vis­ib­il­ity of her fam­ily’s phil­an­throp­ic found­a­tion. She can make money, re­portedly as much as $200,000 per speak­ing en­gage­ment. People are also mak­ing money off her name, such as the con­sult­ants already re­ceiv­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars from the Ready for Hil­lary su­per PAC.

The group has signed up more than 850,000 sup­port­ers, a grass­roots army that’s ready to march as soon as she gives the sig­nal. Spokes­man Seth Bring­man dis­missed the idea that the PAC be­stows a dan­ger­ous aura of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity.

“You’d have to speak to the at­tack­ers about why they are spend­ing all day, every day, 3.5 years out from an elec­tion at­tack­ing someone who hasn’t even said if she’s run­ning,” Bring­man said. “Ready for Hil­lary is fo­cused on build­ing a pos­it­ive grass­roots move­ment en­cour­aging her to run.”

Just as Clin­ton knows the dangers of sup­port­ing an un­pop­u­lar war, she knows the per­ils that come with be­ing the fron­trun­ner. And this time, should she run, she would have to sus­tain the mo­mentum for much longer.

“Be­ing el­ev­ated to fron­trun­ner status is a heavy bur­den she has to carry,” said Demo­crat­ic strategist Joe Trippi, who has ad­vised sev­er­al pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. “That means op­pon­ents will throw the kit­chen sink at every op­por­tun­ity. That also means the charges will get pretty stale. We could even look back at this long peri­od be­fore her cam­paign and find that it was the best thing that ever happened to her.”

Clin­ton is not the only po­ten­tial can­did­ate grap­pling with a long pre­quel. Just as there’s more time for her to trip and for her poll num­bers to fall, the same pit­falls face pos­sible con­tenders like Ru­bio. Time magazine dubbed him “The Sa­vior of the Re­pub­lic­an Party” back in Feb­ru­ary, months be­fore his lead­er­ship on im­mig­ra­tion re­form den­ted his stand­ing with con­ser­vat­ives.

Howard Dean, the former Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man and pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, sees an up­side for Clin­ton as a long­stand­ing pre-can­did­ate. When the Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks go too far — as they did when one web site gave vis­it­ors the chance to “slap Hil­lary,” they back­fire. Amer­ica Rising’s re­search of Clin­ton’s polling found that her num­bers rise when voters feel sorry for her, as they did after a tense U.S. Sen­ate de­bate in 2000 and when she teared up one day be­fore the New Hamp­shire primary in 2008.

“The Re­pub­lic­ans seem shrill and small and not ready for prime time,” Dean said. “There’s a good chance the party will nom­in­ate someone from their right wing in 2016, and she’s the per­fect coun­ter­point.” By giv­ing speeches from time to time, as she did earli­er this week on wild­life traf­fick­ing and last month on vot­ing rights, “she’s con­tinu­ing to re­mind the Amer­ic­an people that she’s an adult in the polit­ic­al arena,” Dean ad­ded.

Trippi said the great­er danger for Clin­ton is that the po­ten­tially first wo­man pres­id­ent doesn’t get sand­bagged as the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ate, as she did in 2008 when Obama stole her his­tory-mak­ing thun­der. Tues­day night, she re­minded people that neither she nor Obama would have been al­lowed to sign the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, and she hailed the wo­men’s rights con­ven­tion at Seneca Falls in 1848. Emily’s List, the group that pro­motes fe­male can­did­ates who back abor­tion rights, has star­ted a “Madam Pres­id­ent” cam­paign that sets the right tone, Trippi said.

“What happened last time is that in­stead of run­ning as a wo­man mak­ing his­tory and lead­ing on re­form and change, she ran on her ex­per­i­ence as a sen­at­or and First Lady, and she played in­to the status quo in a change elec­tion,” he said. “I think she’s prob­ably learned that les­son.”

If Trippi is right, per­haps Clin­ton’s hi­atus from pub­lic of­fice will turn out to be her sav­ing grace. But un­til then, there will be hard knocks.  


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