Eight years ago, many people believed — and I was one of them — that while it was certainly not inevitable that Hillary Clinton would become the Democratic nominee for president, she was sure to run a smart, efficient campaign. After all, if there was anything you could have said about the Clintons and the people who populated their orbit at the time, it was that they understood the mechanics of campaigns and above all knew how to win. When Clinton’s campaign actually ended up being a tragicomedy of vicious infighting and spectacular incompetence, it was a shock.
And as we start to think about 2016 (the first primary is less than 22 months away!), it already appears that this could be one of the most complicated presidential elections we’ve ever seen, and particularly complicated for Clinton. As Alex Seitz-Wald of the National Journal reports, “there are no fewer than nine PACs or super PACs that include Clinton’s name in their own, according to Federal Election Commission records, on top of dozens of Hillary-themed websites. Some are serious efforts with real money and professional staffs; others seem well-intentioned, but politically unsophisticated; more still seem out [to] make money or have missions and strategies too nebulous to comprehend.”
Every campaign struggles to exercise control over its message, to keep focused on what it wants to say and not get sidetracked by people speaking out of turn or the inevitable controversies that crop up when your supporters say and do idiotic things when you’d rather they just keep their traps shut. Swirling around Hillary ’16 will be a cloud of supporters and detractors, many with lots of money to spend and all looking to get attention for themselves. The Supreme Court’s loosening of campaign rules (which may not yet be done) has resulted in a tide of money flowing into campaigns through corporations, super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, much of which can’t be traced to its source. There will be more of this outside spending in 2016 than in any race before, and it will be a challenge to remain at the center of it and stay in control.
How is she going to handle that challenge? There was certainly little control in 2008, particularly since Clinton’s campaign was overseen by the universally reviled Mark Penn. As David Corn told us yesterday, “In recent weeks, I’ve talked to several Washington politicos close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and when I’ve asked if they will be joining Hillary’s presidential machine, should she run, I’ve received a variant of this (understandably) not-for-citation reply: If Mark Penn is involved, no f-ing way.”
It’s almost impossible to overstate the resentment toward Penn that still exists among Clinton partisans for things large and small, like the fact that he didn’t understand how the delegate system worked, allowing the Obama campaign to pile up delegates and move closer to the nomination while the Clinton campaign was spinning in circles. (Like so many people, Penn has managed to fail upward — despite being regarded by other pollsters as somewhere between a joke and a fraud, he became CEO of one of the world’s largest PR firms and today is executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Microsoft, where his innovative thinking has produced things like the inane “Scroogled!” campaign, in which Microsoft goes negative on Google as though the two tech giants were running against each other in a state senate race.)
All of which is to say, the strategic environment of 2016 will demand an even greater level of attention to detail and clear-eyed thinking than 2008 did, even if Clinton is smart enough not to take advice from Penn. But there is one thing working in her favor: She ran and lost, and that experience can be profoundly edifying. Look at the biography of almost any highly successful politician, particularly the ones who get to be president, and you’ll usually find that early in their careers they experienced a heartbreaking defeat that taught them to temper their ambition with wisdom. It happened to Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and too many senators and governors to mention.
My favorite line about the Clinton presidency came from legal scholar Garrett Epps, who wrote in the American Prospect in 2002 that Bill Clinton didn’t destroy his enemies; he drove them insane, and they destroyed themselves. And that’s something Hillary Clinton will have working in her favor: Her enemies hate her with a passion that matches the way Barack Obama’s enemies despise him. That makes it possible that no matter how much money they have to spend, their attacks will do more damage to themselves than to her.
* POSSIBLE LEAD IN DISAPPEARANCE OF MALAYSIAN PLANE: Australian searchers are heading for the site of a pair of objects identified in satellite imagery that could be wreckage from the jet liner.
* BOB STRAUSS DIES: The former Democratic party chair has passed away at 95. All his obituaries will contain the words “consummate Washington insider.”
* MAJORITY OPPOSE LETTING EMPLOYERS OPT OUT OF CONTRACEPTION REQUIREMENT: To be honest, I’m a little surprised at this result from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, because allowing companies like Hobby Lobby to opt out based on their religious beliefs is one of those positions that sounds good as long as you don’t think very much about the implications, and surely most people haven’t spent time thinking about it.
* HOBBY LOBBY CASE HEADING TO SUPREME COURT: In the end, what the public thinks doesn’t much matter; it’s up to the justices. Next week they’ll be hearing the case; here’s an explanation of what’s involved.
* OBAMA TRADES BARBS WITH ELLEN: The President goes on Ellen DeGeneres’ show today, and calls her Oscar selfie, which dethroned one of him as the most-tweeted, a “cheap stunt.”
* NEWLY DISCOVERED DINOSAUR CALLED THE CHICKEN FROM HELL: Take your puny veloceraptor and shove it.