Today Hillary Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices,” was released, and it’s already number two at Amazon, with enough page-turning excitement to lead some people to camp out the day before to get their signed copy. This is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and the media are jumping. This morning there no fewer than seven articles about Clinton on the National Journal’s home page. Not to be outdone, Politico floods the zone with eleven pieces on its home page, at least as of 9:30 (more are sure to come).
Yet it isn’t easy to report on a campaign that hasn’t officially begun. Polls are meaningless, there’s no behind-the-scenes intrigue to explore or strategic moves to dissect, and there are no ads to analyze. How can you judge how a campaign is doing before it’s doing much of anything? It’s a challenge, but folks are giving it their best shot:
GOP lacks ’16 horse, but @HillaryBook rollout so far emboldens Rs in 2 ways: RichieRich gaffe shows rust & lack of msg shows…lack of msg
— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) June 10, 2014
Yes, you read that right: Halperin is criticizing a campaign that doesn’t yet exist for not having a “message.” And that “Richie Rich gaffe”? This very morning, Clinton is defending and explaining her comment in an interview yesterday that when they left the White House in 2001, she and Bill were “not only dead broke, but in debt.”
Which is, strictly speaking, true. They didn’t own a home, and their legal bills were larger than their assets. Of course, they didn’t need to worry about whether that situation would last; the speaking fees available to a former president (and later, a former Secretary of State) are quite spectacular. But I guess the comment is supposed to tell us that Clinton doesn’t care about regular people. Or something like that.
It’s disheartening, if inevitable, that we would be talking about “gaffes” even before the campaign begins. It’s almost as though in the absence of “gaffes,” some in the political press have no idea what to write about. The handy thing about them is that not only do they absolve you of the need to understand policy (booooor-ing!), they also require virtually no reporting. Write a story about a gaffe, and you’re free to spend all your time in mindless speculation about what effect the latest slip of the tongue might have.
That’s the case even if in practice, the effect is usually nothing. And that will be particularly true with Hillary Clinton.
There’s an inverse relationship between the degree to which voters are familiar with a candidate and the ability of any one thing the candidate says to change voters’ views of him or her. If voters haven’t been paying too much attention to a race, and a candidate who is a relative newcomer says something shocking, voters can (in the right circumstances) say, “Huh, that gives me some pause. I’m not sure about this guy.”
But has there ever been a non-incumbent presidential candidate about whom voters have heard more and had more opportunity to form an opinion than Hillary Clinton? She’s been a national figure for two decades, she was First Lady and a Senator and presidential candidate and Secretary of State. She’s had her sartorial choices and hair styles and family and everything else about her scrutinized down the sub-microscopic level for years. If anyone — either her Republican opponents or the media — thinks that voters are going to suddenly form a new opinion of Hillary Clinton based on an extemporaneous comment she makes, they’re crazy.
But nobody ever seems to learn this lesson. To take just one example, you may recall how Mitt Romney practically staked his entire campaign on a misleading interpretation of an out-of-context quote from Barack Obama, the words “you didn’t build that.” He and the Republican party seemed to sincerely believe it would deliver victory. Romney talked about it endlessly. They made it the theme of their convention, with banners and signs and videos. They literally wrote songs about it.
And what impact did it have on the race? Precisely none. Barack Obama had been president for four years. Everybody already knew who he was, and nobody was going to change their mind because of a “gaffe.” And everybody already knows who Hillary Clinton is. Not that that will stop people from talking about this gaffe, or the next one, or the one after that.
We can always hope that the next campaign will be less inane and trivial than the ones before it. But there isn’t yet any evidence to suggest that will be true this time around.