Clinton’s Achilles Heels


Ben Smith has a real scoop here – getting Obama political aides to measure up Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In many ways, she’s astonishingly ascendant, as John Heilemann and I chew over in a new Deep Dish podcast – more ascendant than in 2007 – when she also seemed inevitable. But in other ways, her campaign now – relying again on massive support from Democratic constituencies and donors – is uncannily close to the campaign she ran last time. It relies on her name, her stature, and her gender. And it’s perfectly possible that she could run and win by the George W Bush model in 2000 – by simple and early overwhelming of the field.

But there are big liabilities to being the overwhelming front-runner in any primary race:

“The further out front the effort to elect Sec. Clinton is three years before election day, the greater the incentive is for the press, prospective opponents, and adversarial groups to scrutinize and attack her every move,” said Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for the 2012 Obama campaign. “Even if it is a well-known candidate — sometimes more so — activists, donors, and voters like to see candidates fighting for every vote. If they start to feel like their power and influence is diminished it could have unforeseen consequences — we learned that lesson the hard way during the New Hampshire primary in 2008.”

Who knows? As John notes, almost all her potential rivals have effectively deferred to her. But nonetheless, there are, it seems to me, two weaknesses at the heart of her candidacy.

What are her defining issues? Will she run on Obamacare – ensuring its success? Will she run on climate change? Or protection of entitlements? How would her foreign policy differ from Obama’s? Until we get a sense of where she is headed as far as policy is concerned, she runs the risk of appearing as some kind of large juggernaut that simply has to be elected, well, just because. Maybe being the first woman president would render all these other issues moot. But at some point, she will have to enter the fray. I’m not sure she’s actually fully prepped for that. Her campaigning and speaking skills are not as impressive as Obama’s.

But more importantly for me is the inability of her supporters to answer a simple question. I was having dinner with a real Clinton fan the other night, and I actually stumped him (and he’s not easily stumped). What have been Hillary Clinton’s major, signature accomplishments in her long career in public life? What did she achieve in her eight years as First Lady exactly? What stamp did she put on national policy in her time as Senator from New York? What were her defining and singular achievements as secretary-of-state?

Maybe readers can answer those questions. I’m a little stumped. But more important: Clinton herself must have a ready answer to that question – an answer that can unify various elements of her career and make a coherent whole. My concern is that her name, history and gender have pushed that core question to one side. And her fiercely loyal coterie may be too much in the tank to see that these are questions non-groupies want answers to. But at some point, she better have a stronger answer than her supporters can currently provide.

(Photo: This February 6, 2013 photo illustration shows a woman viewing the new website of Hillary Clinton in Washington, DC. According to news reports, the website was registered on Thursday, just 24 hours before Clinton stepped down as America’s top diplomat, handing the baton to John Kerry.  By Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)