The rule is always to first do no damage. If, however, there is such a thing as being too cautious, her inevitableness Hillary Clinton may be flirting with that condition as her long march to the Democratic nomination continues.
The unease over Clinton’s candidacy on the left continues to grow, and it is a phenomenon which has become inescapably obvious to those following the nascent presidential race. While polls suggest that Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to become the next Democratic presidential standard-bearer, those political reporters who tout top lines without noting the left’s unabashed dissatisfaction with Clinton are flirting with dishonesty. It is no longer sub rosa and hasn’t been for some time; Clinton anxiety on the left is palpable.
While not yet noting the aggrieved left’s frustrations with Hillary, a movement which scuttled her presidential hopes once before, a handful of Clinton’s benefactors in the media are wondering if there is anything to this likely nominee’s candidacy beyond the carefully cultivated impression that it cannot be stopped.
In her most recent piece, The Atlantic’s Molly Ball may have loosed the most unforgiving volley of criticism at Hillary over the entire course of her stealth presidential campaign. “That Clinton is a risk-averse, pragmatic politician has been her hallmark for years, of course—it’s just another way in which her current persona offers nothing new or surprising,” she wrote. “Has America ever been so thoroughly tired of a candidate before the campaign even began?”
Everywhere Hillary Clinton goes, a thousand cameras follow. Then she opens her mouth, and nothing happens.
Clinton made a much-ballyhooed appearance in Iowa over the weekend, giving a speech widely noted for its substancelessness. She “had no explicit message of her own,” Politico noted, while The Economist pronounced it “underwhelming.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was so frustrated by Clinton’s lack of verve that he went on an extended rant about it, proclaiming, “I know her and like her, but she puts on that political hat and she’s a robot!” The coverage of Clinton’s speech seemed to contain more meditation about how anodyne she was than reporting of what she actually said.
The Iowa campaign speech that wasn’t a campaign speech (delivered at a “steak fry” that wasn’t a steak fry—the steaks are grilled) followed a year’s worth of nearly newsless Clintoniana. She wrote a book that reviewers unanimously described as stale and safe, valuable mostly for the hints it offered of her future positioning. Reviewing Henry Kissinger’s new book for The Washington Post a few weeks ago, Clinton boldly declared the need for “a real national dialogue” to “take on the perils and the promise of the 21st century,” while dodging any prescriptions of her own for today’s vexing foreign-policy dilemmas. Last month, when Clinton caused a firestorm by telling my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg that President Obama’s foreign-affairs philosophy, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” was “not an organizing principle,” he pressed her to name a better one. “Peace, progress, and prosperity,” she said, as though that were any closer to being something you could organize a nation around.
Yet, the press continues to devote extensive coverage to the vehicle Hillary because, well, that vehicle sells. CNN reporter Peter Hamby, who joined a gaggle of reporters tailing Hillary Clinton at her staged and valueless appearance in Iowa over the weekend, candidly revealed that the Clinton brand continues to be extensively reported on because readers care more about her than they do other more vivid political actors.
“Couldn’t their time have been better spent reporting on an undercovered Senate or governor’s race in some other part of the country, far away from the rest of the media scrum?” Hamby asked of many members of the press who jostled to get a good shot of Clinton flipping a pre-cooked steak alongside retiring Sen. Tom Harkin. “Of course, the academics would say.”
“But the incentive structure of today’s click-driven news economy begs to differ,” he added. “Hillary gets eyeballs. Arkansas’ Tom Cotton does not. This is the world we live in.”
That is just the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that crumbles when repeatedly challenge, and challenged it will be. Hillary sells right up until the moment she doesn’t. And when the bottom falls out, as it did in early 2008, it will fall hard and fast.
On Friday, ahead of a Clinton address to a women’s forum in Washington, the former secretary of state’s 2008 campaign spokeswoman, Maria Cardona, joined CNN where she was asked to preview some of the themes she planned on addressing. The CNN anchors were eager to hear something – anything — that might resemble a campaign message. They were disappointed.
“If Secretary Clinton runs, this will be a huge piece of her campaign,” Cardona said, presumably referring to women in general. “When you talk about minimum wage, which Republicans don’t want to raise, two-thirds of women are the ones who hold these jobs.”
“When you talk about equal pay for equal work, when they’re not getting as much money as men are for the same jobs, that is a huge issue for women all around the country,” she continued.
That’s it? Minimum wage and the 77 cents lie – though none dare call it that, lest they be accused of popping one of the two balloons keeping Clinton aloft. These are the rails upon which the inevitable Clinton juggernaut will cruise to the White House? It is amazing that only Molly Ball has yet mustered the courage to call this campaign out for what it is: bereft of ideas and anchored on a cult of personality.
The Clinton inevitability narrative was tired months ago, but there is virtually nothing to keep it moving forward save its own accumulated momentum. Newtonian physics will soon catch up with the former secretary, and her campaign will encounter resistance. It is a law of American politics. When it does, those reporters who held their tongues when they saw the signs that Clinton’s sky-high support in the polls was hopelessly shallow will regret not having been more honest with themselves and their readers.