Surprise surprise surprise. Hillary Clinton is running for president.
And absent some earth-shaking development such as a health crisis, she is almost certain to become the Democratic Party’s nominee. No non-incumbent of either party has enjoyed such a clear, unencumbered pathway to the nomination in the post-WWII era. She enters the race as the general election favorite as well, but with so many miles to travel between now and November 2016, that doesn’t mean that she’s invulnerable or inevitable.
To the contrary, I can’t think of another person in any field of endeavor, from politics to entertainment to sports, who has lived under more scrutiny than she and her husband over the last quarter-century. That extended time in the national spotlight, including service in the U.S. Senate and as a high-profile secretary of state, has given her a record to defend and a public persona that is pretty much set in concrete.
And she knows it.
Take a look at the video in which she announces her candidacy. It goes to great lengths to send the message that this race isn’t about Hillary Clinton, it’s about the American people. Tellingly, Clinton doesn’t appear in voice, image or name until the video is more than half over. When she finally does appear, she casts herself as just like the other ordinary Americans featured in the production, pursuing her dreams and ambitions. Her’s just happens to be the presidency.
Most of the political messaging in the video is conducted visually. Note the prominence of women in the video. Note the Hispanic businessmen, the gay couples, the black couple, the young people, the retirees, the white small businessman — the absence of anyone in suit and tie. The communication is almost all through subtext. “The deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” she says in the only statement that approaches an overt policy pronouncement. “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.”
It’s smart positioning, in part because she and her consultants know what is coming and are hoping to leverage it to their advantage. They know that on the Republican side, the battle to come will be all about Hillary. They just won’t be able to help themselves. The 2016 GOP primaries will be decided in large part by who attacks Hillary most effectively and who can incite the base against her, and the process not going to be pretty. (For example, see Rand Paul’s contribution here.)
GOP chair Reince Priebus puts it into context:
“So if you were me and you were chairman of the national party and you had someone on the ticket that would unite your party, would help you raise a lot of money and help you recruit a ton of volunteers, you would want nothing more than Hillary Clinton to be on the other side.”
We’ve been down this road before. During the ’90s, the Republicans freaked out about her husband Bill, accusing him of everything from rape to involvement in the “murder” of aide Vince Foster to cocaine running. Eventually their irrational hatred and frustration at his popularity drove them to impeach President Clinton, even though his job-approval rating at the time was 73 percent, according to Gallup.
They freaked out in glorious fashion once again with the 2008 election of Barack Obama, followed by another in 2012. The Clintons and Obama are by definition mainstream American politicians — there is no other way to explain their long-term political success. The Republican insistence on treating them instead as cartoon villains says a lot more about the psychology of their own party than it does about the character of those they attack. And the Clinton campaign seems eager to use that weakness against them.
The question that the Clinton strategists pose is this:
Will Republicans be able to walk that fine line of rallying the base against the hated Hillary, as Priebus outlines, but somehow do so without stooping to such excess that they turn off the independent and moderate voters, particularly women, who will decide the outcome? With her “It’s not about me, it’s about America” theme, Clinton is gambling that the answer is no, and everything we’ve seen in the past two decades would suggest that she is right.