In 2007, speaking to the Telegraph’s Toby Harnden, Rudy Giuliani offered a declaration: “If you want to defeat Hillary Clinton, I would be the best person to do that because I can make this campaign nationwide.” It would be something of a theme of his campaign, though that was partly due to the fact that Clinton was, for some time, the frontrunner across the aisle. In Harnden’s piece, Giuliani explains that he thinks the Democratic ticket will eventually be Clinton-Obama, in that order.
In the end, it wasn’t Clinton-Obama or even Obama-Clinton. It was, for the purposes of that rivalry, just Obama. This surprised people on both sides, who expected Clinton to eventually run out the clock on Obama’s insurgent challenge, and was never able to. It was doubly challenging for the GOP: not only was Barack Obama a better general-election candidate, but the GOP candidates were unprepared for him. They had been planning for Hillary.
Concern about Clinton is framing many GOP officials’ approach to the 2016 contest and was much on the minds of those who gathered in Washington this week for the party’s annual winter meeting. Indeed, the GOP’s ongoing overhaul of voter turnout machinery — and the rules changes governing its presidential primary process — are being conducted with an eye toward helping the eventual GOP nominee overcome the Clinton juggernaut.
Giuliani’s experience provides a cautionary tale, but it also in some ways justifies the GOP’s focus on Hillary. The cautionary tale part is obvious: they thought she was inevitable, she wasn’t, and the concentration on Hillary constituted an opportunity cost in preparing for Obama. Additionally, the party structure around a presidential candidate needs to offer its own agenda, a vision for governing the country. A referendum can only be held on the administration in office, and in 2007-2008 the GOP was the party in the White House.
Republicans were able to run that kind of campaign against Obama in 2012, but it won’t be so simple when there’s no incumbent and they are trying to convince the country to give them back the levers of power. And if they prepare only for Hillary, and she doesn’t run (or loses the nomination/coronation somehow) they will be in the same situation as Giuliani.
However, that’s not the whole story. Giuliani, in fact, got a few things right. The first was how to run against Hillary. She would have been a historic candidate, and still would be, by attempting to be the first woman president. Giuliani seemed to understand the pitfalls of running against her better than Rick Lazio, her 2000 Senate opponent, did when he was faulted for looking like a bully. (This critique of Lazio from the left, painting Hillary as a damsel in distress, should actually have been quite offensive to her, and perhaps gave an indication of the trouble she’d have winning a Democratic Party nomination.)
In that Telegraph piece, Giuliani indicated that he would treat Hillary like a run-of-the-mill liberal and ignore her historic status. He also honed his attacks on policy: “If we do HillaryCare or socialized medicine, Canadians will have no place to go to get their health care,” Giuliani quipped at a GOP primary debate.
There is still plenty on the policy side to criticize Clinton, even (or especially) in areas the burgeoning Clinton campaign thinks it’s strongest. For example, in Amy Chozick’s New York Times magazine piece on Clintonworld, we learn:
If there is one thing that Clinton allies want to make sure you know — and will keep reminding you, over and over, in interviews — it’s that Hillary Clinton’s State Department was run nothing like her chaotic 2008 presidential campaign. When Clinton accepted the job as secretary of state, she did so with the understanding that she could bring some of her most loyal people — called the Royal Council by one aide — along with her. …
The cloistered State Department offered Clinton a chance to define herself away from her husband and to shed the stench of managerial dysfunction that still lingered from the campaign.
And wouldn’t you know it, she failed that test spectacularly. Even the Accountability Review Board on Benghazi noted massive organizational and managerial incompetence when Clinton was in charge at Foggy Bottom. Those who wanted to exonerate Clinton from the consequences of the attacks relied on her managerial incompetence to do so: a fuzzy chain of command, confusion over safety requirements, failure to prepare a slow-moving bureaucracy for the challenges of postwar Libya.
Republicans are playing the odds by betting that Clinton–especially with no one like Obama in her path this time–remains the favorite for her party’s 2016 nomination. There is much to be said for being prepared to face a challenging opponent. In that sense, they’re right not to interpret Giuliani’s loss as an argument against such preparation. At the same time, they should remember that Giuliani understood far better than some current Republicans–Mike Huckabee comes to mind–how to run against a candidate of her status in the identity politics world. But they’re also the party out of power, and they’ll have to make sure to have plenty of ideas of their own.