There comes a time in life when spring is in the air, the blossoms are blooming anew, the birds are returning to their aeries, and a political reporter's thoughts, naturally, turn toward wildly speculating about whether Hillary Clinton is going to run for president in 2016.
And it looks like that time is nigh. Clinton is starting to deliver public orations again, as consultants start to eye the chessboard and grassroots activists start to gin up support and raise ducats for a campaign-in-waiting. There's no doubt that we're still several steps short of a critical mass -- let alone an announcement from the former secretary of state and presidential aspirant herself. But whatever dam had been previously holding back the flood has started to show some signs of cracking, and the discussion has begun anew.
We must pause here at the outset and offer praise to Clinton for doing everything in her power -- by which I mean, nothing at all -- to delay the sort of advance-hype for the 2016 election cycle that we might otherwise be in up to our waist. See, as long as Clinton says nothing definitive about whether she's running, she effectively "freezes the field." Other Democratic contenders can't start contending. Republican rivals who lack real game have to keep their mouths shut as well. We're not drowning in stories, speculating about when Andrew Cuomo is going to visit Des Moines (though I'm sure Des Moines can't wait), and no one is getting tumescent over the tricksy consultants Martin O'Malley is hiring.
And that's great for America! Most people can't wait to keep right on waiting to spend their every waking hour reading about the 2016 election. I don't know if there is some large group of non-partisan, single-issue voters whose primary desire is to be allowed to not have to contemplate elections four years before they happen, but if such a voting bloc exists, they all owe Hillary Clinton their support, for being a force for good in this area. They should also stop reading now, because I'm going to cave in, and try to highlight what's interesting about these recent developments.
Sorry, I party.
Despite Clinton's best field-freezing efforts, we were never destined to live in a world where hot speculation over her presidential prospects were restrained. The biggest news that came out of Clinton's appearance on "60 Minutes" alongside President Barack Obama was Obama playfully calling interlocutor Steve Kroft "incorrigible" for asking whether he was endorsing Clinton for president. Days later, people went nuts over a Public Policy Polling poll that found that the state of Texas was "in play" for Clinton. And grousing from political speculators over Clinton's coyness began to manifest itself. Chris Cillizza wrote a post insisting in one breath that "Clinton likely won't have as much time to luxuriate in not working -- and not thinking about whether she wants to run in 2016 -- as she might want," and admitting in the next, "It's hard to pinpoint a particular date but it's hard to imagine her being able to wait much beyond the 2014 midterm elections."
But no one would find it all unreasonable if at some point, after the 2014 midterms, Clinton made up her mind about running in 2016. That's the way it is supposed to work.
Cast your mind back to the beginning of February. New York CIty was mourning the passing of Ed Koch. The Baltimore Ravens had triumphed over the San Francisco 49ers and the infrastructure underpinning the Superdome's electric grid to win Super Bowl XLVII. The White House press corps was hot on the trail of Obama's skeet-shooting past. And Hillary Clinton? Well, she launched herself a website. No big deal. Here's how our own Ariel Edwards-Levy described it:
Hillary Clinton, who left her post as secretary of state last week, now has a new website.
The site was created Jan. 31, according to Politico.
We seemed to be very alone in calling this website a "blank slate" that contended against 2016 augury, however. CNN, by comparison, managed to lose its ever-loving mind over the site:
If a picture says a thousand words, some may be reading this one as "Hillary Clinton 2016."
An attention-grabbing photo of Clinton -- without the glasses she has worn since her recent concussion -- boldly sits atop a new website, HillaryClintonOffice.com, which was registered on January 31 as she left her post as secretary of state last week.
Only further stirring the speculation: visitors to her old campaign website, HillaryClinton.com, are offered a link to the new website "to reach the Office of Hillary Clinton."
If I'm not mistaken, Bill Clinton also launched an "office of Bill Clinton" website after his term ended, so if you wanted to hew to safe assumptions, you would probably just contend that Hillary Clinton is following the same practice. But CNN continued in an altogether different vein, contending that the photo was "attention-grabbing," that there was special meaning in the way her old website sent visitors to the new one that was a de facto reason to speculate on her presidential ambitions, and that there was a special mystery in the way that the "site was purchased through a service allowing the purchaser to remain anonymous."
Some unnamed source (more mystery!) offered to help CNN by pointing out that the website was simply "created to help people contact her with questions and scheduling requests now that she is no longer in her government post." But this was not evidently enough to convince CNN that there wasn't something larger at stake.
"Even though the next race for the White House is a long way away, there's already intense speculation over whether Clinton will make a second bid for president," said CNN, intensely speculating over whether Clinton will make a second bid for president.
But, it's probably better to have people speculating over your political future than not. An even better problem to have is the Ready For Hillary SuperPAC, which made its official debut Tuesday, and which is already doing brisk business, according to The Washington Post's Aaron Blake:
The group said this week that it is gaining more than 1,000 supporters a day and already has more than 100,000. It has also signed up well-known Democratic operatives and former Clinton aides to lead the effort.
One such operative is James Carville, who is about as significant a figure in the world of Clintoniana as you can have on hand, if you're a tea-leaf reader of future political intentions. Carville, according to reports, hasn't yet formally joined the effort, but he's lent the nascent super PAC his name in an email missive to supporters. Per Politico:
In the e-mail, Carville argues Clinton supporters need to recreate the organization President Barack Obama built for his own reelection bid.
"Hillary had to give up all political organizing activities when she became Secretary of State. That means it's up to us to build this thing from the ground up," he writes. "The fact of the matter is that political campaigns have changed. The Obama campaign connected with people in ways that have never been done before in American politics -- and one of the things that made it possible was that they never stopped organizing after 2008."
It's not uncommon, of course, for political luminaries to find themselves the beneficiaries of supporters who want to build a "campaign-in-waiting." Back in 2008, Ed Rollins tried to do much the same for Mike Huckabee. Similar efforts were made on behalf of Jon Huntsman and Mitch Daniels. The efforts didn't amount to much. Huntsman was the only one of the three who ran, and he didn't get much out of the odd surreal motorcycle ads that were created ahead of the launch beyond low-single digits in most national polls. Rollins, failing to earn Huckabee's assent, migrated to the campaign of Michele Bachmann. It was a strange arrangement, and it did not end well.
But what Clinton supporters may have brewing could end up being a thing apart. For starters, this undertaking is going to move real money. My colleague Michael McAuliff offers a game prediction: when the next round of campaign filings are perused, you're going to see donations in the amount of $20.16 moving in Clinton's direction. With Carville's imprimatur, Ready For Hillary PAC is going to catch some of that scratch for its coffers. That means the unannounced Clinton "campaign" is going to have a double-freeze on the field -- money will be piling up in her corner from the grassroots, and big institutional donors will remain leery of backing someone else's horse until an official decision from Clinton makes it okay to mull backing an O'Malley or a Cuomo.
More importantly, these supporters aren't taking a flier on an unknown. If you recall the draft effort to bring Gen. Wesley Clark into the 2004 campaign, in the apparent belief that his military background would be a compelling "x-factor" in the Democratic field, this isn't it. DraftWesleyClark did a respectable job -- in the opening two-week stretch of Clark's campaign, they raised over $3.5 million. But Clark ran from an underdog position, never manifested much facility for communicating on the stump, badly miscalculated by avoiding the Iowa caucuses (where the entire campaign storyline shifted in John Kerry's favor), and ended up as one of the field's semi-respectable also-rans -- not a guy who'd proved worthy of being "next in line."
Nobody who backs Hillary doubts her appeal or chops, and so they don't talk about her as something that maybe could work if things break the right way. Ready For Hillary PAC's executive director is the 27-year-old Adam Parkhomenko, and he doesn't speak in the language of campaigns. He speaks in the language of entrepreneurs.
In an interview with Slate's Dave Weigel, Parkhomenko said, "I've always looked at Hillary as a brand," adding, "That's been especially true in the last couple of years. It's a brand I believe in. It's a brand I want to protect. It's a brand I want to build."
As Weigel goes on to report, this is a super PAC that's being built to tweak the model -- raise unlimited money while keeping Clinton from the taint that's become associated with super PACs:
"We're going to show people that super PACs can operate in a different way," says [Ready For Hillary PAC cofounder Allida] Black. "Every donation over $250, we're going to make public. You're going to know exactly who our donors are. Adam and I would never, never do anything that would taint Hillary."
"There is a kryptonite firewall between the PAC and the candidate," she says. "I want her to win so badly, I'm willing to say I'm not going see her for four years. I'm not even seeing her now when I could, legally. I just wrote a book about Eleanor Roosevelt, okay? I so badly wanted to sign a copy and give it to her in person. We're talking a bucket list experience, you know? But I wouldn't do it."
Listening to Parkhomenko and Black discuss their undertaking, you can't help but think that merely calling it a "campaign" operation doesn't do it justice. This is a start-up. They have access to capital. They intend to have category-killing innovations. The product they want to sell looks impeccable in the current marketplace. They are just waiting for their Steve Jobs to accept the mission.
It's a tempting set of circumstances. Enormous efforts are being made to sweeten an already delicious pie. But if there's one thing Clinton knows all too well, and which her most dedicated supporters might be blind to in their ardor, is that even as Clinton espies that pie, she's probably pondering the portion of poison on the menu as well.
Alex Pareene, who wrote this week about Clinton's need to pass the "Mark Penn Test" ("Paying Mark Penn means you've failed the Mark Penn Test") before deciding to run for office again, makes an adjacent point that is just as important to anyone meditating on the possibility that Clinton might answer her supporters' 3 a.m. phone call: the fact that "for years the standard Republican talking point on Hillary Clinton was that she was a socialist lesbian harridan castrating bitch-queen puppet-master:"
The anti-Clinton machine would have to crank itself back up, though it's been dormant for so many years now that the default position among right-wingers since 2007 has been basically to proclaim unalloyed admiration and love for Hillary Clinton, as a means of insulting Obama in comparison. Anyone with a vague recollection of the age of Whitewater and Vince Foster and Travelgate and all the other weird shit that consumed both the fringe right-wing and the mainstream press for much of Bill Clinton's terms in office knows what made the Clintons and their inner circle so paranoid and hypersensitive to attacks.
Pareene suggests that the "rebranding" efforts the GOP is currently embarked upon might serve as a vital check against the possibility of a return to the paranoid style of Clinton bashing. But between now and 2016, there's going to be a midterm election. The vagaries of redistricting makes the GOP's retention of a House majority a rather easy hang. In the Senate, they have a puncher's chance at returning Harry Reid to minority status, and even if they don't, their filibustering super-minority is working out just fine. By the time the dust has settled on Election Night 2014, the GOP may well declare their "rebranding" to have been a success.
Following from there, however, would be a rapid descent into the maelstrom of the 2016 elections. The anxiety to get their hands on the signing pen, alongside the knowledge that throwing every last bit of dirt and hurt at the Clinton machine is enough to anger up their base and potentially turn the Clinton campaign away from optimism and towards the venality that comes from defensiveness, is a strong incentive to returning to a state of full-on Clinton derangement. Desperation, coupled with an unrestrained raging id, does funny things to a political party.
And lest you think that memories of what it was like to be the target of such attacks are far in the misty distance for Hillary Clinton, let's recall that one thing Clinton was dealing with in the waning days of her Foggy Bottom tenure was the unrestrained insistence that she was faking the concussion that was keeping her from testifying about the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. I wouldn't worry overmuch about the possibility that Clinton's dog-tired and done in from the past four years of peripatetic global travel, but I have to imagine that having to endure a round of "Concussionghazi" was unimaginably exhausting.
The uncontroversial and plainly obvious bottom line is this: anyone not named "Hillary Clinton" who is considering a run for the White House in four years' time has to have a bad case of envy over all of Clinton's advantages. She's got serious foundational support, gaudy poll numbers, and the ability to just crush the dreams of your possible Democratic competitors by simply doing very little and saying even less. Those are great conditions to begin a campaign.
The question is, can Clinton's supporters and donors get this groundswell to the point where it becomes the proverbial offer she can't possibly refuse? Because those are pretty great conditions to make an exit from life in public service, too.
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