Race is on to define Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential candidacy

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus tells "In Play" hosts Chris Cillizza and Jackie Kucinich why he's threatening to pull debates from NBC and CNN over their planned Hillary Clinton bios. (The Washington Post)

The 2016 presidential contest is more than two years away, and Hillary Rodham Clinton has not decided whether she will be a part of it. But the race to define her potential candidacy is well underway — and far outside her control.

Already, independent super PACs have sprouted to boost or bludgeon the former secretary of state, and a television miniseries and documentary are in the works — projects one person close to Clinton called “ill-conceived.”

Clinton is trying to hover above the partisan fray for as long as possible, but some of her allies appear to be placing her back in it. Emily’s List, a group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is staging a town hall meeting Friday in Iowa to start making the case for putting a woman in the White House.

On Monday, the Republican National Committee tried to pop the Clinton balloon by threatening to refuse to partner with NBC and CNN in future presidential debates unless they stop the production of planned projects about Clinton’s life.

Scarred after two consecutive presidential defeats, Republicans are wary of allowing another Democratic candidate to become a seemingly untouchable luminary, as Barack Obama became in the run-up to the 2008 election.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in letters to network executives that the NBC miniseries and CNN documentary are a “political ad masquerading as an unbiased production.”

The networks were undeterred, indicating that they are moving ahead with production. Priebus said Tuesday on PostTV, “My guess is this is exactly what’s going to happen: They will produce the films, and we will cut them out.”

The RNC position assumes that the NBC and CNN projects will be favorable to Clinton, but that is no guarantee. Neither she nor her advisers will have any control over her portrayal, leaving the would-be candidate vulnerable at a time when she has no campaign in which to define herself.

Other factors outside Clinton’s control could color perceptions of her, including this fall’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Terry McAuliffe, the moneyman at the center of the Clinton political network, as well as the New York mayoral race of Anthony Weiner, who is married to Clinton confidante and aide Huma Abedein and whose campaign is beset by a sexting scandal.

Clinton — who has been busy giving speeches, writing a book and working on an early-childhood initiative through her family’s charitable foundation — and her advisers largely have stayed quiet on the TV projects and other forces outside her control.

“At this point, her team can manage events or they can let events manage them, and they are wisely not trying to manage the unmanageable,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who has advised President Obama. “Their job is to do what needs to be done and to let her make a decision at the appropriate time on whether or not she wishes to run, not to chase every story being written.”

One person close to Clinton, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, lamented that the news media are partly to blame for giving Clinton presidential buzz “breathless attention.”

“It’s amazing how not a day goes by where the media can’t find yet another burning bush,” this person said in an e-mail. “Moses went through his whole life only seeing one. You guys run into them left and right. Someone should do a story headlined, ‘Nothing Happened In The World Today To Prove That Hillary Clinton Can/Will/Should Run, So We’re Dedicating This Space to REAL News.’ ”

Asked how Clinton and those around her could manage her portrayal in the CNN and NBC projects, this person said the question should be directed to the television networks.

“It’s their headache — of their own making,” this person said, adding that the projects were “ill-conceived by each, and neither has anything even close to an answer to the editorial concerns people have raised.”

The television projects were announced with great fanfare in recent weeks. NBC has cast actress Diane Lane to play Clinton in its miniseries, while the CNN documentary is set to premiere in 2014 with a theatrical run before airing on the cable news network.

NBC News said in a statement that the news division is “completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project.” CNN, meanwhile, urged RNC members to reserve judgment until they know more about the film.

After decades in public life, Clinton is an established personality, and it is an open question whether outside forces can effectively redefine her before voters.

“The taller you stand, the harder the wind blows. And the longer you’ve been standing, the deeper the roots, the tougher the bark and the harder to blow you down,” said Republican media strategist Mark McKinnon, who is working with Clinton on Too Small to Fail, a nonprofit early-childhood development initiative.

Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List and a Clinton booster, has run several winning Democratic Senate campaigns and said: “Here’s the thing I know about campaigns: Only the candidate or the candidate’s campaign can ultimately really drive the conversation about who they are.”

At this moment, however, Clinton is doing relatively little to shape this conversation. Underscoring this absence is Sen. Claire McCaskill’s prominent role in advocating for a Clinton campaign.

McCaskill (Mo.), a vocal Obama supporter in the 2008 Democratic primaries, had angered Bill and Hillary Clinton and their close advisers when she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2006 that she thought President Clinton had been “a great leader, but I don’t want my daughter near him.”

This spring, however, McCaskill signed on as an early endorser of Ready for Hillary, the super PAC working independently of Clinton to lay the groundwork for a 2016 run. And McCaskill will headline Emily’s List’s “Madame President” town hall meeting in Des Moines.

Former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell (D) said of Clinton, “A lot of people are absolutely convinced that she’s going to do this and run for president. The people around her, myself included, would love her to run. But I’m not sure she’s crossed the Rubicon in her own mind.”

For now, though, Clinton is wise to lie low, said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who managed Robert J. Dole’s 1996 campaign.

“The best thing she can do is drop out of sight, rest up, hop on the treadmill and come back in four to five months and show folks she has the discipline to run for president,” Reed said. “She needs an ‘Oh, God’ moment when she comes back . . . a good one.”

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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