Hillary’s obstacles mount on road to 2016

The New York TimesMay 21, 2014 

Reince Priebus made a joke on Sunday.

I don’t know that he meant to — comedy isn’t his forte — but the only way to hear one of his comments on “Meet the Press” was as a put-on. He said that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t run for the presidency if “she has another month like she just had,” with questions about Monica, about Benghazi, about Boko Haram, about her brain.

I almost fell down. For one thing, she’s had countless months like that. For another, they’re the only kind on the horizon: Hillary as the fodder for the morning talk shows (on Sunday’s panels, she came up 98 times, according to a Washington Post tally) and Hillary as a pinata for late-night comedians; strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with a modicum of merit and strenuously marketed Hillary scandals with none.

If Republicans believed in global warming, they’d surely divine her hand in it. Speaking of body parts, I suspect we’ll move from Hillary’s brain to her heart, probably her liver, possibly her pancreas and maybe even her pinkie toe. What Hillary goes through in the public arena isn’t an examination. It’s a vivisection.

That she endures it is admirable. That she’s so willing to is scary. With all politicians, you worry about the intensity of the hunger that enables them to suffer the snows of Iowa and the slings and arrows of outrageous pundits. With Hillary and Bill, you worry that it’s rapaciousness beyond bounds.

You also grow weary. The Clintons are exhausting. And that’s just one of many drawbacks worth discussing as Hillary plays Hamlet, mulling what to do.

She’s without doubt the contender to bet on. But she’s a contender with baggage and obstacles that get woefully short shrift in all the nonstop chatter about her inevitability.

For starters, Americans have been in a pessimistic mood for an unusually sustained period, their faith in the political system at rock bottom. How does someone who’s been front and center in that system for more than two decades — who’s a symbol of intense partisan warfare — become the voice of change? There’s no “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” for Hillary. Tomorrow was yesterday.

Remarks she made in Washington on Friday illustrated that point. At a conference titled “Big Ideas for a New America,” she mused about what “the 1990s taught us,” looking into the future by traveling into the past, which isn’t the terrain on which presidential elections are typically won.

Bill traveled there just 21/2 weeks earlier, in a speech of his own at Georgetown University. “Speech” is too paltry a word; this was one of those ego extravaganzas, like his aria at the Democratic National Convention, that went on and on and reaffirmed his talent for making everything, including the current income-inequality debate, about him. In this case he was singing the praises of his own presidency’s economic record.

He was also serving notice that despite his screw-ups during Hillary’s 2008 campaign, it may be impossible to muzzle him in 2016. Just last week, on yet another stage, he again joined the fray, proclaiming Hillary blameless for Benghazi and vouching that her concussion was merely that.

There’s a thin line between chivalry and butting in. Can he stay on the right side of it? If not, he could hurt her candidacy, overshadowing her and undercutting her feminist story line.

She has additional challenges. If Obama’s approval rating doesn’t rise, his would-be successors will be best served by breaking with him. For Hillary that’s hard. Given her history on health insurance, she can’t run against the Affordable Care Act. Given her role in his administration, she can’t run against his foreign policy.

How does she simultaneously defend and defy him? It’s a balancing act that Al Gore never perfected in regard to her husband.

The past month has indeed been instructive, demonstrating how practiced Republicans are at attacking her — and how exuberant they are about it. I think they want her to run. She’s the devil they know. She’s the dragon worth slaying.

She’s considered inevitable in part because she’s political royalty, awash in money and celebrity endorsements, but is royalty what an economically frustrated, embittered electorate wants? With fame of her duration and magnitude, how does she find a common touch?

And how does she show us anything that she hasn’t shown us before, introducing or even reintroducing herself?

Maybe any sense of staleness will be expunged by the prospect of a first female president, but she lacks an opportunity that many successful presidential candidates enjoyed: that period of the rollout when a more detailed biography emerges, a personality is defined and voters get a chance to swoon.

We can’t fall in love that way with Hillary, not at this point. We’re too far past the roses and Champagne.

Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist.

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