First the big (non-)news: Hey, Hillary Clinton is going to run for president. Who knew? There are few likely presidential candidates with better pedigrees for the position than Clinton. She has White House experience (arguably more useful White House experience than Vice President Biden), she has been in the Senate, she has been secretary of state. It's not as though this is a surprise, of course. Everyone knows all of this. Everyone knows everything about Hillary Clinton, from her favorite style of outfit (pantsuit) to her default posture on international issues (hawkish-ish) to her mannerisms, staffers and family members.
Therein lies the risk. For a Republican to win in 2016, he or she needs to surmount one bar: be better than Hillary Clinton. And it's not clear, from a political standpoint, that this is a very high bar.
Campaign theory often suggests that competitive primaries in one party and a clear path in the other serves the latter party. After all, the competitive primary party spends months tearing its candidates apart, while the other gets to simply sit back and cash checks. But consider the last time there was an open presidential contest on each side. Sen. John McCain of Arizona (relatively) quickly locked up the Republican nomination; Barack Obama and Clinton battled for months (thanks, in part, to Clinton's refusal to acknowledge the inevitable). So much hand-wringing over the damage done to the party! But the end result was a romp.
That election is instructive in other ways, too. What more do we know about Clinton now than we did then? She was leading by a healthy margin that year (although not as healthy as she does now), only to be overtaken by Obama as the primaries approached. A clear reason why: He was exciting. There's a benefit to being a political blank slate, as Obama was: Voters can inscribe whatever motivations or philosophies they see fit. But there's more benefit to being someone people get excited about. This was partly McCain's (and Mitt Romney's) problem. Who, really, was terribly excited about either? McCain's campaign got a jolt with the introduction of Sarah Palin, but that . . . offered mixed benefits.
But, you're thinking, the Republicans lost in 2012, the race to which you're comparing this one! And, yes, your close reading has been rewarded with an insight. The problem with assuming that 2016 will therefore see a Republican loss is that Obama and Clinton are very different candidates -- and it's possible (although not certain) that the GOP will pick someone with a bit more panache than McCain or Romney this time around. That's really the question. Can, say, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) survive the gauntlet (and his last name) to compel independents in a general? Can former Florida governor Jeb Bush overcome his name problems and engage voters? Or Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or [list continues for 1,600 names]? Republican voters tend to be, well, conservative in their choices, but it's certainly possible that someone electrifying could emerge -- or be sculpted -- over the next 12 months.
Which brings us back to a core Clinton problem: energy. No, commenters and people on Twitter, the best president is not the one who has the best ability to invigorate voters. But this is, you may have noticed, a key component of how we pick presidents in an age so thoroughly saturated with marketing. And Clinton, although not without vocal supporters, seems continuously unlikely to be the most energizing candidate. "Ready for Hillary" often seemed less like a grass-roots push born of uncontainable excitement than a sharp strategy from some political consultants looking to align with a winning candidate early in the process. At her book-signing in New York last June, the refrain from those who bought "Hard Choices" was commonly, "Well, she might be president." And those who bought the book were in the stark minority.
How will she overcome this? Reinvent herself, a la Romney in 2012 and Romney in 2016? Learn how to say "secretary of state" in other, more interesting-sounding languages? Clinton is what she is, which serves her very well for locking up the Democratic primary. Then what?
Clinton has a huge head start in the race to 2016. But without the jolt of a primary, the pace will continue: slow, steady, deliberate. Meanwhile, the Republicans are doing their best to breed a jackrabbit.