Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hillary, we hardly got a chance to miss ya


HILLARY CLINTON the private citizen seems to be edging ever closer to dipping her toe in the presidential campaign waters years before those waters return to the national shore. On Saturday, Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times wrote:

“Hillary Clinton left the State Department nearly two months ago, but she still needs a staff to keep up with the considerable business of being Hillary Clinton. A half-dozen people now work for the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate in a tiny corporate space on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, in what is called her ‘transition office.’

“Transition to what, Mrs. Clinton and her aides have not yet said. But the question hovers over her every move and has frozen in place the very early — but for some potential candidates, very important — presidential maneuvering on the Democratic side.

“Mrs. Clinton’s post-government life is so new that she is barely off her State Department health care plan. The Iowa caucuses are at least 33 months away. But that has not dissuaded a network of former campaign staff members and volunteers from starting a political action committee, ‘Ready for Hillary,’ dedicated to what they hope will be her 2016 run.”

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Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast, said on MSNBC on Monday: “In four years time, who knows what will happen? But there’s no doubt there’s an enormous groundswell for Hillary Clinton. Whether it can be maintained — I mean don’t forget, last time, it seemed like it was gonna be a shoo-in last time.”

Brown’s right. However hungry Clinton might be for the White House, it comes down now to picking her spots and choosing her battles — battles she doesn’t have to fight right now in any case.

We’re more than three and a half years out, and the idea that’s there’s a groundswell of support for Hillary taking a 2016 run may not matter. It can’t be overlooked that at this point in 2008, before the campaign had really begun, Hillary was hailed as the inevitable one, the obvious frontrunner with no possible, credible, meaningful competition to be mounted against her.

We all know how that turned out.

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THE PROBLEM with even casual interest in the White House this far in advance of an actual run is obvious: Groundswells thin out after a while. The heady frisson of the armchair partisan wears off as day-to-day reality sets in, and more immediate concerns take precedent. And since the 2016 Democratic nomination won’t be a coronation (or it shouldn’t be), we’ve yet to hear from any prospective challengers. The farther in advance of a campaign that a wave of support occurs, the more likely that wave fades over time.

No one would fault Clinton for kicking back for a year, taking some time off, enjoying the chance to sleep in a bed that’s not on a moving conveyance, before making an announcement at, say, the end of this year or early 2014. She could jump back into public life then and not have missed a step. Why now? Why would you need a “transition office” to retire from being secretary of state?

Even though Rutenberg’s piece focuses on efforts made by her backers on her behalf, let’s be real: Clinton is acquiescing in all of this. And by at least passively indicating interest in the White House so long before an actual campaign, Hillary Clinton may actually be working against those presidential best interests. It gives potential opponents on the Democratic side time to husband their forces, assess the terrain and better prepare for a long-range approach to their own possible White House bids.

It also gives potential Republican opponents — who’ll be in the clown car in 2016? — more time to cultivate strategies and build their angles of attack.

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And anyway, for most Americans just settling into life after a campaign as bruising for them as it was for the candidates, there’s not much appetite for even talking about it this far out. We’ve barely had time to let wallets and pocketbooks recover from candidates’ fundraising from the last go-round, and we’re faced with the talk of another campaign cranking up already? Please.

Call it “campaign fatigue.” People want a break from presidential politics, or anything that even smacks of presidential politics. To the extent that people are tuning out presidential politics in general, it works to Clinton’s disadvantage to make any noises, however obliquely, about seeking the White House right now.

The saying goes that “a week is a year in politics” (or is it “a month is a year ...” or “a year is a decade ...”? I forget). But sometimes, “a year” in politics is exactly that: A year. And there are more than three of them between now and the next presidential election, and just short of three between now and the beauty contests of the Iowa caucuses.

Many Americans who’ve been in Hill’s corner since 2008 are still licking residual wounds over her defeat in that campaign. She coulda this, she shoulda that, they reason. But the fact is, the 2008 model Hillary wasn’t ready for the presidency. Never mind the fact that she was repeatedly blindsided by a young, energetic, determined, opportunistic campaigner like Barack Obama.

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CLINTON WAS perfectly comfortable in engaging in the kind of bare-knuckle, flood-the-zone, machine politics that husband Bill Clinton perfected in his 1996 re-election campaign.

She got down in the mud; she adopted the politics of dog-whistles, division and innuendo when it suited her; she even took on the coloration of her Republican rivals, adopting positions that were anti-Democratic or perceived as such, at the expense of Obama, the eventual nominee. And she lost the nomination — lost it in a race that, contemporary revisionism aside, wasn’t as close as some observers like to think it was.

The 2016 Hillary won’t make the mistakes the earlier model made, She'll know better next time: Don’t ignore social media; don’t think the few deep-pocketed donors writing occasional big checks trump the power of hundreds of thousands of everyday donors making regular campaign contributions; don’t look at such viral fundraising as an add-on instead of foundational; don’t take advice from Mark Penn.

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But all that aside, Hillary Clinton’s just better prepared to be president. Her personal and professional biographies are more and greatly burnished now than before. After years as first lady; more years as a New York senator highly regarded on both sides of the aisle; after four years as secretary of state, the most widely-traveled in the nation’s history; after books and speaking engagements, Hill’s bona fides for the Oval Office are more bona now than they’ve ever been.

Now, it’s a question of whether she really wants it. After years and years in the public life, after four years and a million miles — literally — spent traveling as the nation’s top diplomat, Hillary Clinton not only deserves a rest; she needs one. In many ways, so do we. Just for right now.

The question’s been asked of others in the public spotlight, but it’s just as applicable to ask of Hillary Clinton: “How can we miss you if you never go away?” In a country just getting its second wind post-election, it’s not a hypothetical.

Clinton: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images. Ready for Hillary logo: © 2013 Ready for Hillary PAC.

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