The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) was famously flummoxed when CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd asked him why he wanted to be president – and he couldn’t offer a convincing justification.
Kennedy later said Mudd had “blindsided” him. That 1979 interview forever undermined Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination.
While nearly everyone assumes the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton’s for the asking, there are signs the former secretary of state may be struggling over whether to run. While a formidable campaign and fundraising organization already appears to be in place, Clinton has done little to sharpen her rationale for running.
At a recent appearance at Georgetown University, Clinton delivered a mostly desultory speech in a half-empty hall that was met mostly by silence or polite applause, according to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post.
Her discussion of the virtues of “evidence-based” decision-making made few converts. “Those who bothered to listen could have heard the rationale for Clinton’s candidacy as she spoke about the need for women to play a greater role around the world in war-fighting and diplomacy,” Milbank said.
Then last week in a speech to a women’s group in Boston, Clinton pondered the enormous stress and pressure of the presidency and the “unforgiving nature of the job.” She was seemingly giving voice to her own misgivings about running, according to The Post’s Anne Gearan.
Some of Clinton’s chief supporters reportedly are increasingly concerned about the threats by other Democratic presidential hopefuls, who might somehow complicate her run by focusing too much on her weaknesses.
So far, former Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have been exploring prospects. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), meanwhile, insists she will not be a candidate despite entreaties from people on the left.
Polls show Clinton running far ahead of any potential Democratic challenger, including Warren, and for now, she can count on more than 60 percent of her party’s support.
But if Clinton views herself as the inevitable nominee and approaches the process as a coronation, some analysts warn she may run a poorly focused campaign and set herself up for an upset in the general election.
“I see a real crisis in the Clinton candidacy,” said Ross Baker, a prominent political scientist at Rutgers University. “Elizabeth Warren would do her a huge favor by coming in.”
With a strong challenge from the left, Baker says Clinton would need to enunciate more clearly her more centrist views on the economy, Wall Street, immigration and foreign policy. There are tensions within the Democratic Party between regulars who fawn over Hillary and Bill Clinton, and the more liberal or progressive members who want a break with their centrist policies and with those of President Obama.
In recent speeches and interviews, Hillary has experimented with themes like income inequality and women’s rights that would appeal to her party’s liberal wing, while taking more hawkish stands on Syria and other Middle Eastern crises.
Yet her book tour last summer and the controversy over the millions in speaking fees she and her husband have earned from corporations and colleges have hurt her image. She is still trying to recover from the outrage over her complaint to ABC’s Diane Sawyer last June that “we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”
Clinton can make a compelling argument, of course, that this is her time to lead her party to the White House. She is more experienced, battle tested and knowledgeable than just about any other potential Democratic candidate, with the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden.
And she would be mounting another historic campaign to become the first woman elected president in U.S. history – right after two terms of the first black U.S. president.
But credentials and biography won’t seal the deal for her with many voters, and Clinton will have to provide a more forward-looking argument and vision for leading the country. She came close to achieving that in 2008 but she lost out to the more dynamic Barack Obama.
Unless another strong Democrat like Warren enters the fray, Clinton risks waging a flabby, uninspiring primary campaign that would leave her vulnerable to a general election battle with N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky – who have all done relatively well in hypothetical matchups with Clinton in recent polls.
“There’s nothing fundamentally more invigorating than having competition,” said Baker. “Insurgents like Elizabeth Warren tend to be exciting. Clinton has a real problem in terms of maintaining interest,” he added. “It’s assumed she is going to announce. If that is true, then the announcement itself is not going to have the effect you would hope it would have.”
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