With Eric Cantor’s political implosion and the news that our long investment of blood and treasure in Iraq is about to be entirely squandered by Barack Obama’s indifference, Hillary Clinton almost escaped disaster last week. Almost, but not quite.
Hillary’ presidential campaign-kickoff-disguised-as-a-book tour was a wreck from the beginning, even with her natural constituency in the news media. Like everything in the Clinton political world, it was a week planned, prepped, and war-gamed to a fault. It was meant to demonstrate not only her accomplishments, her ideas, and her Presidential campaign-in-waiting’s skills, but to continue to build dread of the Clinton Juggernaut. However, the overly regimented, four-seconds-per-prole limit during her book-signing events and the heavy-handed media handling drew a picture quite different from the one Team Clinton intended.
Speaking of Hillary’s book, Hard Choices is dull, shallow, and was rightly and roundly panned by reviewers, despite the best PR rollout and softball media interviews money could buy. While this genre is never particularly revelatory, Hard Choices is even less enlightening than the usual fare. Don’t bother reading it. There’s simply nothing there.
In some ways it’s a perfect window into Hillary Clinton’s life: she’s a careful, transactional politician without serious accomplishments other than her personal image. There’s no ideological or policy soul to Hard Choices, just a recitation of “there-I-was” stories in service of the Clinton brand and the 2016 campaign. The book’s arrival with a stolid thud and the off-putting handling of the press and public for its opening, however, wasn’t the worst part of Hillary’s week.
Two badly botched interviews showed how unready Hillary is for the battlefield of the 2016 campaign. The Good Morning America interview in which Hillary described herself as “dead broke” when she left the White House didn’t even begin to meet the laugh test. After 12 years living in publicly-funded housing in Arkansas and eight years in that dump on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Clintons moved into their $5.9 million dollar home in Chappaqua, New York. Even her allies pointed out that the “dead broke” Clintons had contracts for book deals, speaking engagements, and paid service on corporate boards lined up to soften the cruel blow of moving into the private sector. It was a clunker of a statement, both risible and tone deaf. In an era of rising populism, it was the kind of Romneyesque 47% faux pas that had eyes rolling on both the left and the right. You can easily imagine what a Paul, Cruz, Rubio, or even Christie would do with that line. What would Comrade Elizabeth Warren would do with it?
“Dead broke” was a crowd favorite as campaign flubs go, but Hillary’s interview with NPR’s Terry Gross of the progressive radio program Fresh Air was my winner of the Hillary Gaffe of the Week. Gross pressed Clinton on her “evolving” views on gay marriage, and was met with a series of classic Clintonian evasions. Instead of playing by the Reines Rules, Gross didn’t immediately change the subject. Gross persisted in her line of questioning, creating a tension that, in Hillary’s world, would be seen as the most vicious of attacks.
It reminded an amnesiac press corps, otherwise happily entranced with Hillary’s 2016 inevitability, that while she is mistress of the talking point and set-piece (“At this point, what difference does it make?”), she stumbles past the first turn. When Gross drove Hillary off her easy, first-tier talking point, it turned ugly. The rising tension in Hillary’s voice, the nervous laugh, and the snippy pushback gives you an insight into the Democrats’ rising unease. How can this be? How can the Smartest Woman Ever, the Breaker of Glass Ceilings get sandbagged on a show that is practically designed for the demographic she needs for 2016?
It’s simple. Hillary isn’t good at the work of politics. She’s never won a race with any real competition. She’s lived inside a political bubble where her large, talented, vicious staff protects her from actual pressures and decisions, creating the illusion of a poised and effective leader. But the bubble giveth and the bubble taketh. The protection it gives candidates also dulls their edge, slows their reaction time, and deprives them of an understanding of what’s happening in the country. Despite elite opinion (mine included, to be perfectly candid) in 2006 and 2007 that Hillary was a sure thing and politically invincible, her own failings as a candidate ultimately outweighed the illusion late in the election cycle.
The media may be Ready for Hillary, but whether Hillary is ready for the 2016 campaign is increasingly a question haunting the minds of Democrats everywhere. The cracks are apparent from the first days this time, and even the media and Democrats are questioning whether Hillary can pull this off. Last week wasn’t just a rough start. It wasn’t just shaking the rust off. It was a preview of a campaign that is already failing from the top down, promising to turn her 2016 dreams into a replay of the nightmares of 2008.