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The End of Hillary's 140-Character Campaign

03/09/2015 08:56 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Hillary Clinton, by some accounts, wanted the luxury of waiting as long as possible before officially becoming a 2016 candidate for president. There were good reasons for her to wait, the most prominent being that she could pick and choose which day-to-day political issues to address, and which she could safely ignore for the time being. So the extent of her campaigning, so far, has largely been an occasional Twitter message. It seems, however, that this luxury is about to come to an end. Hillary's soon going to have to give the public more than 140 characters, whether she officially tosses her hat in the ring or not.

Since the beginning of the year, Hillary has tweeted a grand total of 14 times (or, roughly, twice a week). Most of these were pretty innocuous. Only a handful could even be labelled political in nature, in fact. Two of these stand out, one of which worked perfectly for her, and one which did not. The first was a snarky takedown of the anti-vaccine crowd, and it worked exactly as designed. It thrust Hillary into the debate raging over the Disneyland measles outbreak, staked out a clear pro-vaccine position, and gave the media precisely what they wanted. The second one, however, is turning out to be woefully inadequate. Hillary is now rumored to be about to speak publicly about the whole email fracas, to make up for all the questions those 140 characters didn't answer.

Figuring out when to launch a presidential campaign is always a balancing act that professional political consultants get paid a lot of money to navigate. Hillary Clinton's calculations on this question are more complex than most. She's got a lot of pros and cons to weigh, in other words. Jumping in early would mean she wouldn't have the luxury of ignoring current political events, as she'd be pressured to stake out one position or another on each of them. Jumping in too late, however, would make her look like she expected a coronation rather than a campaign for the Democratic nomination. Or, according to others, jumping in too early would look like she's expecting that coronation. As I said, it's a tricky tightrope for her to walk.

But at some point, dithering over the question of when to jump in begins to look like an overabundance of caution. Call it Clintonian triangulation, perhaps. The average voter wonders why any candidate wouldn't want to get in the race as soon as possible, to let the public fully know what the candidate stands for on any and all issues. Campaign consultants, however, know that this leads to possible pitfalls -- staking out positions which turn out later to either have been not adequately thought out, or just plain wrong. Avoiding taking such positions increases the chances that the candidate won't stumble badly over any of them too early in the campaign season.

So far, this has largely worked for Hillary Clinton. She remains quiet on many of the mini-tempests that the 24-hour political media loves to obsess over, and thus she does herself no harm with either side in any of the micro-debates. This stands in stark contrast to the campaign she ran back in 2008, however, when she was the self-professed "person you'd want answering the phone at 3:00 AM." If a scary phone call did happen at the White House at such an early hour, we were told, Hillary would not only be ready to answer it, but she'd also readily have the right answer to whatever problem the call was about. The ad projected decisiveness, for two tactical reasons. It was meant to portray Barack Obama as indecisive and inexperienced, and it was meant to directly address any qualms the public might have over electing the first woman president. Hillary would be as tough and forceful as any man, even in the wee hours of the morning.

Which is why, to me at least, the whole email "scandal" is notable for how slowly and cautiously the Hillary team has reacted. Put aside any questions raised by her use of a private email server while secretary of state -- we'll all have plenty of time to hash out all those details as they come out. Also set aside any political damage this may do her in the long run. Again, we'll have plenty of time to figure all that out later. What is of interest to me, so far, is the gap between when the scandal broke and when Hillary is going to fully address it.

This gap should be seen as worrisome to Democrats for a couple of reasons, both having to do with the "Clinton brand" (which includes her husband as well). When Bill Clinton was in office, he was often criticized for being "poll-driven," or paying too much attention to "focus groups." Before Bill would take a position, he'd allow his political team to poll-test it within an inch of its life, to divine what the public truly thought about the various options being considered. This was seen as being too influential to the path Bill eventually chose to take. Now, any campaign for a political office is also going to do the same sort of polling, and every candidate is going to pay varying degrees of attention to such data. That's a modern fact of political life. It is inescapable, but at the same time it is usually conducted so far behind the scenes that it is not visible to the public at large. It only really becomes an issue for the candidate if the media chooses to focus on it. And that usually only happens when the media is left hanging because the candidate is being too cautious about taking a clear stance on any issue.

The problem for Hillary now is that Bill was really only accused of being so driven by polls after he got elected president. In his first successful presidential campaign, he had to take bold stances, because he was a relative unknown on the national stage. He didn't have the luxury of waiting to see what the public's consensus was, he just dove in and forcefully stated his various positions. It wasn't until after he was in the White House that the caution began to be a story, in other words. Hillary, to put it bluntly, does not have that kind of luxury. She's been in the public eye for over two decades now, and has been a senator and a secretary of state in the meantime. She is as far from an unknown as can be imagined, in fact. So while her natural inclination (gained through both her own experience and her husband's) is now to step very cautiously, she is going to have to abandon this caution to some degree or another if she's going to become an effective candidate.

The other contrast to the "Clinton brand" that is a bit surprising is how slow to react Hillary has been on an issue aimed directly at her. This is not a question of kids being vaccinated, or even some foreign policy question that Clinton could be forgiven for dodging for the moment. The emails are all about her personally, not some political question with a built-in choice about whether it needs to be adequately addressed or not. And that's what's surprising, considering what a pioneer her husband was in the firefighting aspect of presidential campaigning. Bill Clinton's first campaign is where the term "war room" morphed in meaning from that Pentagon room shown in Dr. Strangelove (where questions of nuclear annihilation were gravely pondered) to a purely political definition, one which boasted a lighting-fast response to any whiff of scandal surrounding Bill. It was damage control on steroids. When there were scandalous stories about Bill's relations with certain women (called "bimbo eruptions" at the time), the Clinton campaign would have a response before that evening's news even ran the story. This way, the public was given both the question and the answer at the same time. It was a brilliant strategy, especially for a man who was eventually shown to be seriously flawed in his judgment in what was proper behavior with women who were not actually his wife (and that's putting it about as politely as I can).

Getting back to Bill's wife, though, it seems that Hillary Clinton needs a refresher lesson in the whole war room strategy concept. This is another drawback to staying officially out of the race for too long, because it means her full campaign structure doesn't yet exist. There are a lot of empty chairs right now at Hillary's war room table, in other words. This might be one reason why the delay in addressing the email situation has been so long. There's another danger to this lack of campaign staff, and it was on full display this weekend. When there are no official campaign spokesmen and spokeswomen, the vacuum is filled by opportunists. Which is why Lanny Davis has been on television for the past few days. When the candidate doesn't speak for herself, there are others ready and willing to unofficially speak for her -- whether she wants such help or not, and whether these efforts ultimately help her or hurt her.

The only way to get control of the situation is to, well, get control of the situation. Hillary Clinton has to take the reins for herself, and get out there and answer questions about the emails. If she weathers the storm successfully, perhaps she can then retreat back (for a while, at least) to waging a 140-character campaign on all the issues not directly involving her, but this episode should prove to her that this is simply not a viable option when the political issue is so personal. Her previous political ad, after all, did not promise that when the 3:00 AM phone call happened that she'd get back to us by noon next Thursday with her answer. Taking political potshots via Twitter is a lot more fun and a lot easier than actually running a presidential campaign, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the luxury of doing so is now mostly over for Hillary Clinton.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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