For Hillary Clinton, past presents both pride and peril as she weighs 2016 presidential bid

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent September 14, 2013

Two worlds of Hillary Rodham Clinton intersected this past week. Together they underscored not only why the former secretary of state is seen as perhaps the dominant unelected politician in the country today but also the concerns among some of her Democratic supporters as she considers a return to the political arena in 2016.

As President Obama and Clinton’s successor at State, John F. Kerry — during a dizzying week of diplomacy and threats of military action — grappled with how best to respond to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Clinton was enjoying a fresh round of accolades and honors. The contrast between her recent past life and her current life was striking.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

On Tuesday, on a sultry summer evening, she was in Philadelphia, where she received the Liberty Medal during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center. On Friday, she was in Scotland, where she received an honorary degree from St. Andrews University, which was marking its 600th anniversary with all appropriate academic pomp.

Tuesday’s ceremony in Philadelphia concluded an hour before Obama addressed the nation on the Syrian issue. On Friday, Clinton spoke in Scotland as Kerry was in Switzerland negotiating with his Russian counterpart on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

As both a former secretary of state and the prospective favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton enjoys the freedom to operate in an almost idealized world. She is still in the public eye but mostly not in the line of fire. For now, the hard decisions are someone else’s responsibility.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks for the first time about the U.S. taking military action in Syria. (The Washington Post)
Circuit of accolades

This fall, Clinton will maintain this circuit, receiving awards from civic and other organizations while delivering paid speeches to private audiences along the way. She is already a draw on the strength of her impressive résumé and her achievements during decades in public service. That she might also become president makes her all the more irresistible to organizations looking for someone to honor.

Clinton may be a year or more from a formal decision about running, but among those who are turning out to hear her, there already is an assumption that she will be a candidate, if not a winning candidate. It is never far below the surface when she appears and is sometimes explicitly stated.

In Philadelphia, Amy Guttman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, told the audience, “A few decades ago, when I was a child, it would have been unthinkable for a woman to be president of the University of Pennsylvania, let alone secretary of state of the United States, and something many of us can’t wait to celebrate — the first woman president of the United States.”

The Philadelphia ceremony included elements that might have been scripted for the 2016 Democratic convention, with a highlight reel of Clinton’s life and video tributes from people such as former British prime minister Tony Blair and tennis star and women’s rights advocate Billie Jean King. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), who serves as chairman of the National Constitution Center, gave a warm introduction that included teasing references to possible competition with her in 2016.

Across the street from the ceremony and behind barricades came a reminder of Clinton’s past and possible future, as a small but vocal band of demonstrators sought to draw attention to the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, a year ago that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens.

Clinton will deliver policy speeches this fall, but up to now she has made little news with most of her appearances. As the president’s posture was shifting from threats of military strikes to an embrace of diplomacy that on Saturday produced an agreement between the United States and Russia to corral and eventually eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, Clinton offered Obama her full support, as one would expect.

Ghosts of 2008 campaign

In between Clinton’s two public appearances this past week came unexpected news, which grew out of a long-standing federal investigation into political corruption in the capital city, particularly the activities of Washington businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.

As first reported in The Washington Post this past week, investigators have been looking into Thompson’s role in financing a shadow campaign set up to aid Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

At a moment in early 2008, when Clinton’s campaign was in trouble and in debt, her advisers were approached by Troy White, a New York marketing executive and music promoter, who wanted to set up “street teams” to help build support for Clinton in several states with upcoming primaries. According to court documents and subsequent reporting by Post reporters, the offer was rejected by Guy Cecil, the campaign’s national political director.

Then, through the intercession of Minyon Moore, a senior adviser to Clinton, White’s services were enlisted, not under the Clinton campaign umbrella but for a separate and seemingly secret operation. Thompson, who is under investigation for allegedly financing a secret operation for the D.C. mayoral campaign of Vincent C. Gray (D), reportedly provided $600,000 in financing.

Clinton campaign officials and Moore have been cooperating fully with federal prosecutors, who are believed to be focused on building a case against Thompson, not going after Clinton’s campaign. Moore is a veteran of Democratic politics and campaigns and well regarded in Democratic circles. She is not a target of prosecutors, and her attorneys think that if she made a mistake, it may have been in assuming that all of what White was doing was being handled properly.

Repeat of past mistakes?

All that aside, this window into Clinton’s campaign has again pointed to systemic problems that plagued her first bid for the White House and could do so again if she runs in 2016, unless she structures her operation differently.

What has made some Democrats wince is the portrait that emerges of a Clinton campaign in which decisions did not stick, campaign leaders operated without clear lines of authority and there were endless avenues for end runs, second guessing and freelancing.

“They had a lot of wildcatting going on,” said a veteran of past Democratic presidential campaigns who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “If that happens in ’16, it doesn’t augur well.”

Clinton is neither in the fray nor fully out, enjoying a kind of best-of-all-worlds existence as she looks toward a time when she must truly decide whether to seek the presidency. Meanwhile, some nagging questions remain that her Democratic allies hope will be addressed as she weighs the bigger decision.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.

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