NEW YORK - It was all Hillary Clinton, all day, Friday in New York, a day that helped crystallize how much already has been done for the prospective presidential candidate by others and, more importantly, what she has yet to do for herself.
The events included a day-long session for the donors to Ready for Hillary, the political action committee founded in early 2013 to help encourage Clinton to run for president. She did not appear at the event, but many of the Clinton clique were there.
In the evening, it was the former secretary of state herself in the limelight at a black-tie gala hosted by the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, where she was given the History Makers award.
Ready for Hillary started on a shoestring, dismissed by some in Clinton world as a quixotic enterprise. It has grown into something far more important and valuable to a potential candidate whose top-down campaign in 2008 was one (but not the only) factor that led to her defeat to Barack Obama in the contest for the Democratic nomination.
Because of the work of Ready for Hillary, if Clinton decides to run for president, she will instantly have access to what the group’s leaders say is a list of roughly 3 million people who have signed up as supporters, volunteers, donors or all of the above. Ready for Hillary will shut down if and when Clinton announces her candidacy.
The list can’t simply be handed over to her, but she will easily be able to convert fruits of the organization’s efforts into a Hillary for President ground army.
Many people deserve credit for this. One is Adam Parkhomenko, the young and tireless co-founder of the group, who has been looking to help make Clinton president of the United States since he was in high school and who overcame the doubters with his energy and a strategic grasp of the techniques and imperatives of the most modern of campaigns.
Another who gets credit is Craig Smith, who has been part of the Clintons’ world for more than two decades and whose arrival at Ready for Hillary signaled to many longtime Clinton loyalists — and donors — that the organization deserved their backing, financial and otherwise. About $10 million has been raised since the founding.
Friday’s gathering in New York seemed very much like both a Clinton political family reunion and the gathering-before-the-storm. In attendance were scores of people from across the country, many of them instrumental in helping Bill Clinton become president, some who served him as president, and all of them now are just as determined to see Hillary Clinton get to the White House in her own right.
The speakers constituted a who’s who of Clinton loyalists, from strategists James Carville and Paul Begala to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Equally notable were those from Obama’s political orbit and others who are now part of the Ready for Hillary operation or any of the other pro-Clinton political committees and organizations that have been founded in the past two years.
Without doing anything other than not saying “no” to a second presidential campaign, without having to make any of the hard calls of putting a campaign together, Hillary Clinton has benefitted enormously from the work of all these people. It’s fair to say that no one seeking the Democratic nomination — no one who wasn’t already an incumbent president at least — will have the kind of machinery in place that now exists for her.
One example: Jerry Crawford, the Iowan who has been a top adviser through all the Clintons’ campaigns, told reporters Friday that the work of Ready For Hillary has been “extraordinary” in preparing for a 2016 candidacy.
“We will be at or beyond on day one of the Clinton campaign, if and when it comes, where we ended up last time,” he said.
What Clinton hasn’t yet done for herself, however, remains the key to her real hopes of winning the White House. One is to organize a campaign that is more disciplined and more strategic than her campaign of 2016. She cannot afford another messy campaign operation, and how she avoids that will take considerable thinking.
Still, machinery doesn’t win elections, which means the second and more important step for her is to know exactly why she wants to run for president again and how she is alike and different from her husband and Obama, and then to be able to articulate those reasons in a compelling and forward-looking message.
Clinton is nibbled from all sides as she thinks through the rationale for a campaign. On the left are rising demands for a populist economic message of the kind associated with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. She has edged toward that, but sometimes awkwardly, as when she said last month, “businesses don’t create jobs,” a shorthand that baffled nearly everyone by its inarticulateness.
For Bill Clinton, opportunity — not class warfare — long has been at the core of his message. Hillary Clinton, however, runs in different times than did her husband, a time of greater inequality and underlying frustration. The balancing act is more challenging today than it was for him.
At the award dinner Friday night, Hillary Clinton picked up on the theme of opportunity in a conversation with author Walter Isaacson. He asked her how having a granddaughter has affected her thinking.
After the usual grandmotherly statements about how special her granddaughter is and will be, she took note of the world of privilege into which baby Charlotte was born and will be raised. But then she noted that many other children born on the same day as her granddaughter would grow up in circumstances far more challenged and challenging. “Talent is universal,” she said. “Opportunity is not.”
Can candidate Clinton articulate with both specificity and inspiration how to widen the circle of opportunity?
Her prospective candidacy offers the possibility of the first female president in history, but for all the power behind that aspiration, it is not a message. Nor, as the midterms proved, are narrow appeals to women of the kind that fell short for Democratic candidates for Senate in Iowa and Colorado — two states vitally important in a general election.
Nor can she count on the “demography is destiny” theme that many Democrats see as their ace in the hole in future presidential campaigns. In the corridors at the Ready For Hillary meeting, more than one Clinton loyalist said that will not be enough to win in 2016.
The black-tie dinner was also a reminder of the potential gap between Clinton and the voters she will appeal to if she is a candidate. Much of the conversation with Isaacson was about the Roosevelts — Franklin, Eleanor and Teddy. One point made by both Clinton and Isaacson was that while the Roosevelts came from privileged circumstances, they found in public service ways to advocate for those without.
At the Ready For Hillary meeting, one person, who did not want to be identified in order to speak more candidly, said she should run for president not as Hillary Clinton but as “Hillary Smith,” shorn of accolades and awards that have come at her for so many years. It was good advice, not exactly starting over, but starting fresh.
What Friday reinforced is what many in her party recognize. Democrats may be ready for Hillary. The bigger question is: When will Hillary be ready?
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.