The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hillary Clinton should jump in now

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. (Liam Richards/Associated Press)

If she runs, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee in 2016. Everyone knows this. Even accounting for the unreliability of early polls, her current lead over the rest of the field (between 40 percent and 60 percentage points) dwarfs her 10 point to 20 point lead over then-Senator Barack Obama at this stage eight years ago. All that is left for her to do is formally enter the race. So why hasn’t she?

Some of those who think Clinton should wait make two arguments in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal: Waiting to announce lets the media focus on Republicans fighting each other, and it saves money on campaign operations. (There is a third argument that others make privately: Announcing now prolongs the period when Clinton is under even more scrutiny, having to take stances on every issue while avoiding “gaffes.” But Clinton is hardly silent right now, and if Democrats are truly fearful that Clinton could seriously hurt her chances in the next few months, they should probably be looking harder for another candidate.)

Clinton should want the media to focus on her would-be GOP opponents clawing at each other, but, as the Iowa caucuses get closer, Republican candidates will only get nastier toward each other. At the moment, with the exception of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the GOP candidates are still playing nice. That comity will not last. If Clinton waits until “between April and July,” which the Journal reported is the most likely date, her announcement may not just take media attention away from Paul’s tweeting, but from some more serious internal GOP fighting.

As for the expense of starting the campaign earlier, it is true that (at least according to former top adviser Mark Penn) Clinton’s 2008 campaign managed to blow through most of the money it raised in its first year. But the proper response to the fear of repeating those errors is not to delay the campaign, but to learn from the mistakes in 2008 and from veterans of the Obama campaign, which somehow managed not to spend as foolishly. And without serious opposition, the costs for this primary will inevitably be lower.

Instead, by not setting up an official campaign, Clinton has left a vacuum that various super PACs have struggled to fill. These groups haven’t been able to raise the money they were hoping to (precisely because Clinton has delayed her entrance), and at the same time various Democratic insiders are fighting with each other for influence over Clinton. This has meant that, somehow, the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination has managed to have a week of negative headlines.

Some might say the costs of delaying are overblown. But they are eerily similar to the strife and indecision that sank Clinton last time. As Joshua Green reported in 2008, in what is still the best post-mortem of that Clinton campaign, “Her advisers couldn’t execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution. Major decisions would be put off for weeks until suddenly she would erupt, driving her staff to panic and misfire. … What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make. Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency.” Sound familiar?

Clinton can avoid those mistakes this time by announcing in the next few weeks, setting up a campaign apparatus above the overlapping super PACs and committing to specific advisers. The longer she stays out, the more one has to wonder if she has truly learned from the errors of eight years ago.