Hillary Clinton and her friends in the media have been testing messages for her expected presidential campaign. The case for her will be built on four pillars: that allegations of her corruption are unfair; that she is highly accomplished; that she is above partisanship; and that she is a woman. The first three are dubious and the fourth will matter less than you may think.
Do you remember Webb Hubbell, the McDougals, the missing Rose Law firm billing records, Travelgate, or Hillary’s surprise acumen at high-risk commodities trading? Super PACs and other groups will remind voters of all of these case studies of corruption if Hillary proceeds with a campaign. Democrats are terrified of this likelihood, not because it points to Hillary’s distant past, but because it helps illustrate her more recent corrupt behavior – and that of the elite political class she represents.
Liberals are already honing a preemptive counterattack. They will pin any corruption on Bill Clinton and say it was long ago and therefore boorish to discuss today. A case in point was a dialogue this month between MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and liberal New York Magazine editorialist Frank Rich, formerly of the New York Times. In it, they artfully channeled allegations of the Clintons’ corruption to the sole issue of Bill’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Matthews and Rich readily agreed that this is brought up today only by “puritans,” and Matthews asked, referring to the Clintons, “How many marriages last as long as this one has?” He added: “I think people look at people over a long period of time and they know everything the Republicans are going to throw at [the Clintons] and they’ve already discounted it.”
In other words, claims of corruption are really about Monica; Hillary can hardly be blamed for that; and isn’t it puritanical of Republicans to imply the Clintons’ marriage should be perfect? This misdirection is clever, but it won’t work. True, Hillary cannot be blamed for Bill’s affairs, lies, impeachment and disbarment. But she has plenty of unethical behavior to her own name, and it was on display not only in Arkansas and the White House, but also at the State Department.
It was there where Hillary had her press secretary, Victoria Nuland, phony up talking points in an effort to obscure the role of Islamist terrorists in the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi – and Hillary’s role in imperiling him in the first place. It was there where Hillary had her lawyer, Cheryl Mills, intimidate Benghazi witnesses who were responding to requests from Congress to provide information. It was there where Hillary allowed Huma Abedin, her deputy chief of staff and longtime aide, to do lucrative consulting work for private clients on matters within her government portfolio – while also failing to disclose this income (and conflict of interest) as required by law.
Any of these acts would have gotten appointees in a Republican administration fired, dragged before Congress and possibly thrown in jail. Yes, liberal Washington yawns at the existence of a double standard. But will voters do the same, especially with proof that Hillary’s indifference to law and ethics continued through her last job?
Next in the emerging Hillary playbook is an even less plausible posture: that she can rise above partisanship. The motive here is obvious: after eight years of a supposedly “post-partisan” president who labels his opponents “enemies” and sicced the IRS on scores of them, Americans might prefer some statesmanlike conduct for a change. Sensing this, Hillary recently lamented “pure ideology, pure partisanship” in Washington and admonished America to “get back to evidence-based decision-making.”
It’s a theme that will be repeated, but not believed. In the White House, Hillary didn’t just indulge a partisan instinct on occasion; she was perhaps the most partisan and ideological senior figure in the West Wing. In response to evidenced-based assertions that her husband lied under oath, Hillary said in January 1998 that criticism was just part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” If one looks at insider renditions of the Clinton White House before the myth of moderate Hillary was constructed, one will see that Hillary helped push Bill Clinton hard left in his first term, especially on taxes, cultural issues and government-run health care. Only when Bubba hired Dick Morris and stopped listening to Hillary did he moderate and save his presidency.
However, Hillary’s biggest problem may not be ideology. It’s substance. Her supporters present her tenure as America’s top diplomat as the best case for Hillary. CBS News gushed last year that “Kind words are coming from everyone – including Republicans – as Hillary Clinton steps down from her post as secretary of state.” Eric Schmidt, Google’s liberal CEO, called her “the most consequential secretary of state since Dean Acheson,” which he actually meant as a compliment.
A group called Correct the Record touts Clinton’s supposed accomplishments. These range from the vapid (“brought the State Department into the 21st century”), to the incidental (“supported the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice”), to the implausible (“helped restore America’s leadership and standing in the world”). Americans are more likely to remember just two major events from Hillary’s tenure at Foggy Bottom: the terrorist attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador who had implored Clinton to provide more protection, and the “reset” of relations with Russia. The first resulted in a scandalous cover-up, and the second helped elevate post-Soviet Russia from a secondary risk to U.S. interests back to being a top-tier threat.
Finally, Hillary has built her career around being an accomplished woman, emphasizing her gender at every turn. This will be a key part of her election strategy, and even in their vastest whimsies, right-wing conspirators cannot deny that Hillary is definitely a woman. Democrats hope that even many Republican-inclined women will be sympathetic to the first woman with a serious shot at the White House. Many Republicans, still traumatized from their 2012 loss by a GOP candidate who blithely anticipated that “binders of women” would materialize in his administration, fear this too.
No doubt some voters will favor Hillary because of her gender. But working against this impulse is an event in American history known as the Obama administration. By 2016, the economy will have been in the doldrums for nearly a decade – kept there by numerous Obama policies, the most recent of which is the government takeover of health care that Hillary sought for decades. Democratic foreign policy has weakened every U.S. alliance and drawn every major threat nearer. Americans perceive decline of their power and prestige at home and abroad and are being tacitly told by their political class simply to accept this as a new reality –something they will never do. The pendulum swings in American politics and it has already begun swinging away from this fiasco.
The Marines have a saying: “Hunting tanks is fun and easy.” The idea is to teach budding infantrymen that what looks at first glance to be an impervious killing machine in fact has vulnerabilities they can exploit. Republicans should similarly buck up about their chances of defeating the looming Hillary Clinton candidacy for president. The liberal icon who has fatigued the political scene for some 22 years commands far more fear than she deserves and is deeply flawed. Indeed, she may still conclude it’s better to remain a cause célèbre than become the loser who handed the White House back to the GOP.
If not, then cheer up, Republicans: Hunting Clintons is fun and easy.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation. He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books 2013).