POLITICS
07/11/2014 12:53 pm ET

Clinton 2016 Coverage Is A Wild Ride On The Signal-To-Noise Rollercoaster

OLIVER LANG via Getty Images

Longtime Eat The Press readers know that our official position on 2016 speculatin' in the year 2014 is that we'd love it if there was far, far less of it. But that doesn't mean we'd like none. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote two days after the last presidential election, the 2016 contest has long been on like Donkey Kong. The only question is, is it going to be covered sensibly or not?

There are some examples of sensible coverage. Why, just this week I had the pleasure of reading Patrick Caldwell's story, "The Huge Campaign Finance Loophole Hillary Clinton Isn't Using -- Yet," describing how Clinton might interact with the various super PACs that ally themselves with her presidential ambitions. And I have to say, Caldwell's article serves as a great counterpoint to all the pundits who intone some variation on the "Hillary won't say it, but of course she's running for president" theme while smirking down their noses at you. It's as if it says, "You know what? There actually is a useful and substantive distinction to be made between the things Clinton can do now (publicly coordinate with super PACs whenever she wants) and the things she'll have to do as an official candidate (make sure no evidence of coordination comes to light)."

That's the sort of coverage one should likely file under "useful." Somewhat controversially, perhaps, I also would include in that category the recent coverage leading from a Washington Free Beacon scoop involving Clinton's time as an attorney, during which she defended an accused child rapist. It's an early indicator of what opposition researchers will try to do to Clinton if she runs: undermine her reputation as a champion of women and girls. (Don't fret, I have no worry that the people flogging this story are going to start championing reforms to a criminal justice system that is stacked against rape survivors. This is modern American politics, where histrionic displays of concern run in inverse proportion to sincerity.)

Unfortunately, you can't have a signal-to-noise ratio without the noise. And since Clinton looms the largest over the 2016 landscape right now, coverage of her proto-campaign is full of it: "Why hasn't Clinton performed this banal task? What is Clinton going to do about this thing about which she can do nothing? When will Clinton wander onto this rug, so that it can be pulled out from under her?" The debate rages on, because if the raging ever stopped, people's brains might start working -- and then what? A bunch of reporters would learn they've wasted their youth on nonsense, that's what!

So when it comes to the most frequently heard noise, let's take a trip down the well of diminishing returns, shall we?

Hillary Clinton is very wealthy, which could become a (first-world) problem.

As you may have heard, Clinton is a world-famous political celebrity with a world-famous political celebrity husband and a daughter who -- well, let's face it, it's hard to fathom her not becoming a world-famous political celebrity nepotism beneficiary even if she didn't want to, but she's surely turning into the skid. Clinton gets paid insane amounts of money to make speeches, and she gets book deals as easily as most people put on socks in the morning.

Clinton's life is good. And frankly, it's a little weird, compared to rest of ours. It's especially disconcerting to hear her say, for example, that she and Bill were "dead broke" when she left the White House, because that's just crackers. It's given rise to a persistent question: "Is Hillary Clinton out of touch with America?" (Which is hilarious, considering it a question that mainly issues from the word-holes of teevee pundits and columnists who have heretofore shown no evidence that they themselves have actually met a single unemployed person or member of the rapidly-shrinking middle class.)

This all comes at a time when Thomas Piketty's Capital In the Twenty-First Century is a sales smash, and income inequality is being discussed in all quarters. And there are useful questions that can and should be put to Hillary Clinton, considering that it was during her husband's presidency that many decisions were made that set the stage for the 2008 financial crisis (Commodity Futures Modernization Act ring a bell?). In terms of Clinton's policy proposals, it would be useful to gauge how much she has reflected upon the hard choices her husband now rues.

Unfortunately, the next time someone asks that sort of question will be the first time. Income inequality is not going to be solved by reforming the paid-speaker circuit or by expanding access to it. And I can conceive of no presidential candidate emerging from either party as a nominee who won't be from the hyper-affluent, "me and my family will want for nothing for the rest of our lives" class of super-duper-lucky ducks. The possibility of getting a presidential candidate who is "in touch with America" is precisely nil. (But the possibility of getting a presidential candidate in touch with Sheldon Adelson is an entirely different story !)

So, write this down: The longer the media stays focused on asking about speaking fees and whether someone pumps their own gas, the better the chance they entirely bypass the income inequality issue during the election, setting normal Americans back years.

There doesn't seem to be much of a "Clinton campaign" yet. This is a huge concern!

No, it's not. But that doesn't stop the waste of pixels. Here's Politico:

For all the talk about how 2016 will have to be different from 2008 in terms of staffing and advisers, Clinton is still subsisting on a tiny infrastructure. The press team is small, and she has few paid advisers. She outsourced the work of managing surrogates during the book tour to longtime allies. But she has no polling operation to test what she’s saying and no raft of campaign advisers instructing her answers.

Clinton is trying to delay being treated like a candidate as long as possible, and hiring people would only trigger new scrutiny. And the book tour was a large undertaking to go through with a relatively small team. That can only last for so long.

Oh no, that can only last for so long, everybody! Good thing it's July of 2014, the very definition of "you have a super long time to build a campaign infrastructure." Right now, it would be unbelievably stupid for Hillary Clinton to have a huge campaign staff. You have to pay all those people! (Jeez, no wonder campaign reporters don't understand the economy.)

This is an especially odd concern considering the fact that during the 2008 campaign, the same sorts of reporters were extremely concerned about how huge Clinton's campaign staff was, how much money they were spending, and how quickly they were spending it.

Wow, guys, is Hillary Clinton "moving away" from Obama, that's significant, OMG.

Well, it's significant in that we can now declare the era of "Hillary Clinton should switch places with Joe Biden to set herself up for a run in 2016" thought-farts to be over. Time of death: whenever it was that this Wall Street Journal editorial was published:

Mrs. Clinton hasn't repudiated Mr. Obama, who made her secretary of state in his first term, and comments aimed at highlighting her differences with Mr. Obama are often implied rather than stated bluntly.

But in tone and substance, the presumed presidential candidate has made clear in recent public appearances that she wouldn't be running for a de facto third Obama term in the White House. The strategy could help Mrs. Clinton tackle one of her biggest challenges if she decides to run: how to separate herself from Mr. Obama without alienating Democrats and Obama supporters.

This is a significant challenge for Clinton, but the more logical thing to say is that this is the significant challenge for any Democratic nominee, all of whom will have to navigate the terrain of Obama's presidency and decide which points of similarity and which contrasts they want to play up.

NBC's "First Read" gang put it rather well:

There’s an assumption by many longtime Clinton watchers that she will do what she can to distance herself from Obama, but so did George H.W. Bush in 1988 (re: Reagan) and Al Gore in 2000 (re: Clinton). Every eventual nominee having to run while their own party has held the presidency for two terms or longer has to strike that balance of finding ways to be different than the person they want to succeed without alienating the political base that obviously was responsible for delivering a two-term presidency in the first place.

One would-be candidate, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), has decided to distinguish himself from Obama by suggesting that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) sounds like he is gay, thus proving that just because you can "move away" from Obama, it doesn't mean you necessarily should.

Hillary Clinton has to "move away" from Bill Clinton.

Like I said before, it would be really enlightening to know how her husband's presidency has informed Hillary Clinton's policy choices. But, hey, what if she just straight-up stuck Bill Clinton down in some root cellar instead? That would be even better, right? Well, this is something that Margaret Carlson got actual money to write for Bloomberg View:

Bill Clinton didn’t help her become president in 2008, and he won’t be much help in 2016, except as a warm, supportive presence who, in our imagination, will inhabit the East Wing as a benign elder statesman, giving gentle advice only when prodded.

Alas, there’s no sign he would go along with the script, and any ad-libbing would hurt. We elect one person, not two, Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton’s high White House profiles notwithstanding. Bill Clinton is now beloved -- achieving a comeback no one thought possible. If he meddles in his wife’s 2016 campaign the way he did in 2008, he could lose his hard-won halo. If she lets him meddle, she will go down with him.

The thing about "The Political Narrative" is that it's often just a silly bit of sophistry constructed to allow for future empty-headed shenanigans. Obviously, there is no way for Hillary Clinton to become sufficiently separated from Bill Clinton, unless there is some tragedy looming about which I have no knowledge.

But suffice it to say, if Hillary Clinton succeeds in pushing Bill Clinton so far into the background that everyone agrees he's been sufficiently faded, then at the first sign of trouble -- a slipping approval rating, a weak stump appearance, a bad swing-state poll -- everyone will castigate Hillary Clinton for not having her husband sufficiently involved in her campaign. (Carlson will probably write that piece, too. That's just how presidential campaign coverage works.)

Where's the "big campaign idea" in this book she's written, I can't find it! Doesn't she know she needs to have a big campaign idea?

Oy. Back to Politico:

The “Hard Choices” book tour has had all the trappings of a warm-up for 2016, and even though Clinton insists she hasn’t decided yet, she keeps dropping hints that she has ideas for the future of the country. “You’ve got to ask people who want to run for anything, but particularly president, what’s your vision? What is your vision for our country, and do you think you can lead us there?” Clinton said at a CNN “town hall” forum.

But if Clinton has a big idea for 2016, the book — all 596 pages of it — is not the place to look for it. Policy experts in the Clinton orbit say that’s not the right way to read the former first lady’s latest tome — it’s mostly a foreign policy memoir, and any hints of other themes, like the advancement of women and climate change, are there to wrap up the issues she has already worked on throughout her career.

But any campaign has to have a big idea it’s wrapped around, and that means Clinton still has to spell one out — assuming she has one in mind.

Okay, calm down. It's actually not necessary for Hillary Clinton to have a big idea to run on yet, because if we recall, she does not have a campaign at the moment. Yes, she still needs to "spell one out," but that's something she has many months to accomplish.

More to the point: Think about what you are writing. The "big idea" is not in her book? Well, no kidding, genius. If there is to be a "big idea," then Hillary Clinton is going to want this subsection of the population called "normal human American registered voters" to know about it. So this is not going to be a thing she puts in Hard Choices. The demographic for Hard Choices is not "normal human American registered voters." It is "people who are huge, huge Hillary Clinton fans" and "reporters who were forced by their editors to read this book." The former group won't need any further "big idea" from Clinton. The latter will have ample opportunity to ridicule it. So all in good time.

Naturally, we have that trademarked Politico moment where the premise of the article is refuted by the reporting of the article:

She may be able to resolve that tension by nodding to both camps, as she did at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week. Clinton sounded a populist tone, saying Americans should “feel they have a stake in the future and that the economy and political system is not stacked against them.” But she also spoke to more general, middle-class anxieties: “Of course, you have to work hard. Of course, you have to take responsibility. But we’re making it so difficult for people who do those things to feel that they’re going to achieve the American dream.”

Dunno guys, but if you're searching for some "big idea," then that seems to be what's colloquially referred to as a "clue."

Of course, that's not the only significant question that's resulted from the book tour. Let's go back to the "First Read" gang, here found going off the rails a wee bit by asking if Clinton should have "delayed her book tour and political re-entry":

One thing is pretty obvious when you look at Hillary Clinton’s fav/unfav scores in our NBC/WSJ poll: Her numbers have come back down to earth since leaving her secretary of state position. In Jan. 2013, her fav/unfav was 56%-25% (+31); in April 2013, it was 56%-29% (+27); in June 2013, it was 49%-31% (+18); in Sept. 2013, it was 51%-31% (+20), in March 2014, it was 44%-34% (+10); in April 2014, it was 48%-32% (+16); and last month after her book tour began, it was 44%-37% (+7). That slight but steady erosion begs the question: If she’s planning a 2016 run, should Clinton have delayed her book tour and political re-entry, given that her numbers would start declining as soon as she was viewed as a more political actor (see the book tour) than as a non-political actor (secretary of state)? On the one hand, that erosion has taken place maybe a bit faster than many had anticipated. On the other hand, with all the early attention on 2016 -- book tour or no book tour -- the numbers were probably going to go down, since the erosion is primarily coming from GOP respondents and right-leaning independents. There’s one other potential plus to the 2014 book tour: She’s answered every question, and has had everyone kick her tires. If you’re going to run, don’t you go ahead and get that out of the way?

Hey, First Read, you guys seem to have not really made up your mind on the matter and have confused your readership for a therapist. But let's break this down: There has been wild speculation about a Clinton run dating back to what, 2011? Even before that? (Like, say, 1996?) And the media has been straight fiending for a taste of what's to come? And now you're worried that it's come too soon?

In other words, this food is bland, and the portions are too small! Well, you guys are the ones who cooked and served it.

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