Barbara Walters named Hillary Clinton the most “fascinating” person of the year. Umm, no. Not even close. (The pope is obvious winner.)
One of Clinton’s problems is that she is anything but fascinating. She’s been on the national stage for more than 20 years. There is no aspect of her life (the Rose law firm, her demanding father, her philandering husband, her disastrous presidential run) the media have not pored over. Ironically, we may know less about her tenure as secretary of state. ( Why did she take her eye off the ball in Libya? Was reset her idea? Was she pushing for a deal on Iran like the one President Obama has on his mind?)
That sets up an unpleasant situation for her: The media and public will be most interested about her troubled four years at State than the decades that preceded it. The distant past is no longer a curiosity (or a liability, to be candid), so the last four years in many ways becomes the focus of her 2016. Yes, feminist icon. Yes, dutiful senator. But what about Benghazi? The press isn’t going to be quizzing her about Monica Lewinsky; they’ll be maybe for the first time obliged to grill her on her list of foreign policy debacles.
It seems she is banking on a mixture of entitlement, celebrity and Bill’s stamp of approval to get her to the White House. And that may work to get her through the primary, largely because the Democratic bench is so weak. (Sure, another Barack Obama may come along out of the blue, but does lightning strike in successive non-incumbent elections?) But her viability in the general election is more in question than when she left office. She’s got her record and Obama-Hillarycare to worry about. It is virtually impossible for a pol who’s been around as long as she has been to avoid, well, being boring. Moreover, she may be the candidate with the fewest voters in play ever — you either love her or don’t.
And that is where it gets tricky. The more she seems like just another candidate who will have her hands full with a newer, fresher face as an opponent, the harder it will be to treat the primary as a mere formality. It leaves her vulnerable, at the very least, to a challenger who can excite the base and match up just about as well as she against the GOP opponent.
What would help her reestablish her aura of inevitability and at least stop the erosion of her favorability, which has been dramatic since she left office?
1. Come up with a new health-care approach, most likely a single-payer system. Don’t try to revive Obamacare. It is the only way to separate herself from the mess, get out from President Obama’s negative vortex and engage the base. If she doesn’t go full bore on single payer, some other candidate will.
2. Make sure everyone knows she was against all the foreign policy decisions that proved disastrous. Hillaryland better work overtime trying to get out (or construct) a narrative about her private objections to reset, her efforts to engage in Syria before jihadists overran the place, her distress over the president’s rocky relationship with Israel and, most important, her clear warnings about excessive naiveté regarding Iran. (Did she express such views? No doubt she can find some masterful instances of CYA.) She can’t do it herself without looking disloyal or causing a blowback from Obama troops, but watch for her confidantes and friendly publications to carry the ball.
3. Find an issue that will reignite interest in what she has to say without killing her in the general election. Maybe climate change is too risky and will annoy her big donors and speaking-fee generators. But education, especially revamping higher education, holds some promise if she doesn’t regurgitate the same bland message (pay teachers more, smaller classes, more student loan money).
4. Get away from the high-paying speaking gigs. She would do well to focus in 2014 on an issue not overshadowed by the foundation, which is, in the public eye, more about Bill than her. For example, spend the year spotlighting the treatment of women around the world. She needs to reconnect with people and causes that don’t put her in photo shot after photo shot with investment bankers, Hollywood celebrities and Georgetown doyennes.
5. In fact, start biting the hand that feeds her (cash). Her pro-business reputation is harmful with her base. Both to fend off a challenge from the left and to engage independents, she’d be smart to create a populist agenda for the 21st century — break up the banks, rid the tax code of all the special favors, no more benign neglect on corporate mergers (trust bust!), etc. Come to think of it, that is a pretty good agenda for the GOP; she better adopt it before Republicans beat her to it.