It’s August 2013. What better time to talk about 2016?
At this point, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been awarded the Democratic nomination virtually by default and declared the clear favorite to win the general election against her as yet unknown Republican opponent. That’s an overstatement, of course, but just barely.
Make no mistake. The former secretary of state, former senator from New York and former first lady is in a commanding position at this very early stage. She stands far above all the others in her party who might seek its nomination, including Vice President Biden, who is no slouch as a politician. After Biden, the field of possible Democratic candidates looks thin and inexperienced.
If Clinton were not so politically formidable, two television networks — NBC and CNN — wouldn’t be preparing a miniseries or documentary about her, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wouldn’t be threatening to cut those networks out of Republican debates in 2016.
But if Clinton were as good a politician as people are now saying she is, she might be serving her second term as president today, in which case President Obama still would be in the Senate and possibly weighing a run for the White House three years from now.
Clinton lost an epic nomination battle to Obama in 2012. It was a contest she was supposed to win. Obama clearly was a worthy challenger, a political phenomenon the nation had not seen in some time. But at the start, even he gave himself just a 25 to 30 percent chance of becoming president in 2008, although he said those were pretty good odds, “if you’re a gambling man.” By all rights, Clinton should have prevailed.
That she did not is more than testament to Obama’s charismatic appeal. She lost for other reasons. One was her vote to authorize war in Iraq. But she also lacked a compelling message and was hobbled by a campaign team that made critical strategic mistakes, had no clear leadership, was not as modern as it needed to be and was torn apart by internal feuding.
Would she do better a second time? No doubt she would. Most candidates who seek the presidency and lose are better when they run again. She was a tougher and more effective candidate in the later primaries in 2008, when the race was all but lost, than she was when she was the front-runner. But before anyone assumes she has a clear path to the Oval Office, she will have to demonstrate that she learned lessons from her previous campaign and has taken steps to correct them.
She must emerge from the shadows of two different presidencies. She cannot let the campaign become a Clinton restoration project, no matter how popular her husband is. Nor can she let it become an extension of Obama’s. What will the message and rationale of her candidacy be, should she run?
She could make history, which may be motivation enough to run. The prospect of her becoming the first female president would generate excitement and energy. The same was true in her first campaign. Given demographic changes and the growing importance of women in the electorate, especially younger or unmarried women, Clinton’s gender likely would be a significant asset. It is not a message.
Would her campaign focus, as all Clinton campaigns have, on the middle class? If so, would she have fresh ideas, or would she mostly just offer a lengthy list of well-shopped prescriptions? What would she have to say about the size and scope of government, about entitlements, about income inequality, about the balance between security and individual liberties? Presumably she is using this time to think through all that.
The danger for Clinton is the same as it was when she ran the first time. She will be seen as so strong at the beginning that there will be pressure to run a plodding, cautious, narrow and risk-free campaign. That could add up to something uninspiring, even if it is billed as history in the making.
Equally important are nuts-and-bolts issues that all candidates must address. The Clinton network is vast and loyal, but the intersecting circles of friends, associates, aides, advisers, former staffers, past and would-be administration officials, wealthy donors and others create a huge foundation on which to build a campaign. It also all adds up to a lengthy list of people with long relationships and potentially easy access to the candidate or her husband. For a campaign manager, it could be a nightmare.
Some of Clinton’s closest advisers have been with her for years. They are meeting now to begin preliminary work in the event that she decides to run. They are smart and tough, but few have been in a successful presidential campaign in the age of smartphones, social media, data mining, analytics, modeling, Internet advertising and the like.
Clinton will need to rebuild her campaign team, empower them and protect them when others in the Clinton orbit start to second-guess, as inevitably they will. She can choose from the best of the talent in her party. Names floated to play senior roles in her campaign include some of the brightest younger Democratic strategists who were part of her 2008 campaign. She also can draw on help from veterans of the Obama campaigns who helped build a sophisticated, high-tech, get-out-the-vote machine.
Clinton’s problem may be too many people willing to help. The creation of a pro-Clinton political action committee, Ready for Hillary, has caused headaches already. The Clintons would prefer to keep it at arm’s length and take no responsibility for it. But one after another loyalist has lent a hand, giving her the burden of an organization that appears to be almost semi-official but that may be doing things that not in her interest.
The Ready for Hillary PAC recently hired two Obama campaign veterans, whose task is to help build a grass-roots network of supporters. But it would be a mistake for Clinton to think she can outsource part of her voter identification and mobilization effort. Nor can she import what Ready for Hillary is doing. She would have to build it herself.
There is an old axiom about politics, which goes something like this: The only certainty in campaigns is surprise. Clinton looks strong in the summer of 2013. She has as good a resume as there is in politics. Maybe she will have a relatively smooth path, should she run. Maybe Republicans will fully cede center ground. Maybe demographics are destiny.
But as Bill Clinton always likes to say, campaigns are about the future, not the past. If she runs, will she be a candidate for tomorrow?