Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after a charmed tenure in which few, if any, foreign policy flubs were attributed to her, finds her reputation in tatters in the wake of two Benghazi reports finding serious and widespread lapses at the State Department that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
Let’s stipulate we hope she has a full physical recovery. But are her political prospects as resilient?
Her aura of competency was always shaky at best. She blundered on health care as first lady and ran a seriously flawed presidential campaign in 2008 beset by infighting. At State, the administration’s Middle East policy, the inane decision to back Hugo Chavez’s stooge in Honduras, the Russian reset, the inability to seize the moment during the Green Revolution and a host of failures big and small somehow never stuck to her, perhaps because most observers attributed (fairly, I think) the real decision-making authority on national security to the president. But that halo of goodwill got knocked askew on Benghazi. And while her inability to testify recently is understandable given her medical condition (nothing to sneer at, dear conservatives), her refusal for weeks and weeks before that to be forthcoming created the impression of a woman with something(s) to hide. She will leave office with a major scandal on her record.
Meanwhile, her most likely rival in 2016, Vice President Joe Biden, has been on a roll. After some noticeable flubs in the campaign, he did his job in reviving liberals’ spirits (albeit by giving the rudest performance in presidential debate history). And as he was in the debt-ceiling talks in 2011, he also played a key and productive role in the fiscal cliff dealings. He has been given the job (pleasing to the base if not to the country) of coming up with responses to the Newtown massacre. Damning with faint praise, one might say he is among the more competent members of the administration.
So we have Mr. Competent vs. Ms. Scandal. Certainly, her record at this point promises to be far less helpful to her than Biden’s will be to him.
Let us not, however, underestimate Clinton’s recuperative powers, in all respects. She has been a survivor, someone who has willed herself from one stage in life to the next with the sort of gritty determination and loyal army of support that are essential for a presidential aspirant. If nothing else, she has learned how to win and lose a presidential nomination. She moreover commands, for reasons that escape many conservatives, the sort of admiration and affection that many more capable pols lack. Maybe it is because she has been the most prominent female politician for so long. Maybe it is her association with her husband’s administration, which, given the dismal Obama era, is looked upon with nostalgic enthusiasm these days. Whatever the reason, she — like any pol or public figure who is widely referred to by his or her first name — has a longstanding relationship with the public that is more intimate and therefore more resilient than those of many other public figures. In her case, even scandal and failure don’t necessarily damage that relationship.
Even after Benghazi, she likely could grab the nomination in 2016, should she want it. In 2016 she would be aided by the most effective surrogate in politics (her husband) and an army of supporters who would convene an organization in no time and raise loads of money without breaking a sweat.
So don’t count Hillary out. She remains, even absent the aura of competence, a formidable force in Democratic politics.