Commentary Magazine


The Campaign Strategy Hillary Can’t Avoid

One way to tell how much confidence the political world has in Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016 is that reporters are already writing the stories about her they normally reserve for a politician who has won a major party nomination. For example: in May 2008, Jonathan Martin, then of Politico, wrote a piece titled “Will age be just a number in ’08?” Martin led off the article with another question: “Is John McCain Ronald Reagan or Bob Dole?”

The point was that John McCain was old–but not too old (probably) for voters. A month earlier Steve Kornacki had already written a piece for the New York Observer titled “McCain Is Old Like Reagan, Not Like Dole,” explaining that there’s old, and then there’s old. A candidate can embody energy and optimism at any age. Kornacki seemed to anticipate Martin’s question: age really is just a number.

Martin’s article on McCain’s age was published six months before the presidential election that year. But last week, Martin published the 2016 version of that story in the New York Times. This time it’s about Hillary Clinton–and it was published about 40 months before Election Day. Martin wrote that Republicans were thinking of painting Clinton as old news, especially if they run a charismatic young senator against her. (Hillary has seen this play before.)

Today, Clinton’s supporters hit back via Martin’s former colleague at Politico, Maggie Haberman. Democrats, Haberman writes, “are confident that giving voters the chance to make history by electing the first female president — by definition a forward-looking act — would trump any argument that Clinton is too 20th century and give her a ‘change’ mantra of her own.”

One rejoinder Hillaryland may deploy in her defense, according to Martin, is–stop me if you’ve heard this one–the precedent set by Reagan. And of course the Republican nominee will almost certainly run as a youthful Reagan Republican, both with his politics and his sunny disposition.

In other words, we may have a 2016 presidential election in which one candidate will claim the mantle of Reagan while speaking the language of Obama and the other candidate will claim the mantle of Obama while speaking the language of Reagan. Confused? Don’t worry, you still have about 1,200 days of these articles to figure it out.

For Clinton, Haberman’s article is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the “historic” nature of her candidacy would be a potent political force. The bad news is that Clinton almost certainly would prefer not to run on her gender.

Throughout Clinton’s career, she has faced a certain amount of skepticism. Any doubts raised by the fact that her husband’s presidency launched her political career were not erased when she leapfrogged several rungs on the political ladder to take a Senate seat in New York where she never faced a tough election before being appointed secretary of state. The 2008 Democratic primary fight was her one and only difficult election, and she lost after squandering a lead and alienating a good portion of her party. Her term as secretary of state was devoid of accomplishments and rife with mismanagement, inattention, and whistleblower accusations of corruption and cover-ups.

Her age, then, is less an indication that she couldn’t handle being president and more a reminder that she’s at the end of her political career without much to show for it. What she would probably prefer is to win a presidential election on the merits–which she certainly has, being among the smartest and hardest working politicos around. Though of course she will never run against Obama, one can easily imagine her dream campaign capitalizing on buyer’s remorse, offering Obama’s progressive values but without the ubiquitous incompetence and smug bitterness of this administration.

She would give Democrats a do-over while reminding wavering independents and liberal Republicans of the perils of putting too much hope in a charismatic but inexperienced senator who is in line more with his party’s ideological wing than the mythical center to which so many voters pretend they belong. She might flatter voters instead of inspiring them, but she’d convince them that they all made the same mistake and all learned the same lesson.

She will not do so. This president has done much for her campaign already by shielding Clinton as much as possible from the fallout of the Benghazi tragedy and by very clearly making it known that he would like her to succeed him instead of his own sitting vice president. And the last thing Clinton should do to prove she isn’t the divisive figure Democrats remember from 2008 is to trash, in any way, her party’s sitting president.

So she may have no other real choice but to ask voters to make history, again, and elect her president. It’s a tired, clichéd strategy, but it’s also probably her best shot.

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