Hillary Is Playing Smart Ball in the First Half

Hillary Is Playing Smart Ball in the First Half

Hillary Clinton finally joined the 2016 presidential sweepstakes this past weekend, but it might have been easy to miss. Unlike her competitors in the Republican Party over the past three weeks, the long-presumed Democratic frontrunner didn’t make a splashy entry into the race. Technically, she didn’t even make the announcement herself.

The campaign released a video and a Facebook message – delivered later than expected on Sunday afternoon, when most voters focused on family and friends rather than policies and politicos – while the first official word went out via an email from longtime Clintonista John Podesta.

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The contrast to the GOP’s contenders could not have been starker. Ted Cruz jumped in toward the end of March, keeping the first quarter reports all to himself while his super-PACs raised a reported $31 million in the first week. Rand Paul offered a media event, followed by a controversial media tour that had conservatives rallying around him.

He flipped the difficult abortion question around on Debbie Wasserman Schultz after the DNC chair accused him of extremism on the topic, demanding to know whether she would support killing a “a seven pound baby” in the ninth month of gestation. (Her answer: Yes, if the woman and the doctor decided to do so.)

The greatest contrast came the day after Hillary’s soft announcement, when Marco Rubio seized the stage. Perhaps one of the best natural politicians in either party, Rubio eloquently wove his life story and that of his immigrant parents into a tapestry of the American dream, while outlining the goals and principles Rubio pledged would guide him. His youth and vigor stood out in comparison to Hillary’s lengthy tenure in the nation’s eye, especially with her phoned-in announcement the day before.

If the generational challenge wasn’t clear enough, Rubio spelled it out explicitly in his speech. “Yesterday is over,” Rubio declared, echoing in a perhaps unintended way the campaign theme song for Bill Clinton in 1992, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” by Fleetwood Mac. “We Americans are proud of our history,” Rubio emphasized, “but our country has always been about the future.”

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While Hillary left to tour Iowa in a van, critics and allies alike pounced on her poor showing this week. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said that her weak Sunday move “turned out to be a foil for Marco Rubio,” which “really did help frame everything [Rubio] said.” Ruth Marcus, one of the Washington Post’s liberal columnists, condemned Team Hillary’s announcement video  as “insultingly vapid” and unworthy of a serious candidate. “Adding insult to vacuousness was the demographic box-checking nature of the video,” Marcus wrote. “If your demographic was not featured, you should write the campaign and it will probably splice you in.”

NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell noticed that one particular resume entry was missing entirely – Hillary’s four years at the State Department, which is her only claim to executive experience. “She’s not focusing on her years as Secretary of State,” Mitchell accurately diagnosed, “and that’s most likely because there are a lot of missteps there.”

Clearly, the launch of Hillary Clinton 2.0 won’t win any awards. But did it work? Arguably yes, in part because of the fact that Hillary remains a flawed candidate who struggles in national campaigns. The rollout may have been designed especially with that in mind.

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Consider another contrast between Hillary and the three Republican Senators who entered the race over the last three weeks. Thanks to their need to continue working in the Senate, none of the active Republican candidates can escape the Beltway press. They may not want to do so anyway, since their access to media can be a benefit to them, especially Rubio, who excels in interviews.

They have all faced pointed questions, sometimes loaded questions, and Paul got caught up in controversy over his sometimes-prickly nature. Note well that the Republican governors have refrained from official launches for now, preferring to work outside of the Beltway media to do retail campaigning in the rest of the country while keeping their options open.

That’s more or less what Hillary Clinton will be doing, too. While the GOP’s official candidates (with Jeb Bush being a quasi-exception with an official exploratory committee only) turning themselves into targets, Hillary has roamed Iowa looking for authentic voter experiences to share on Instagram and Facebook.

The media has been kept at arms’ length during this time, resulting in one embarrassing display of media desperation when her van came to a halt outside an announced venue. Dozens of reporters went running after the black van as if they were grade-schoolers running after the ice cream truck in summertime.

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NBC sent out an e-mail blast announcing EXCLUSIVE: NBC’S KRISTEN WELKER CAUGHT UP WITH HILLARY IN IOWA [bold and caps in the original]. What was NBC’s exclusive? Welker asked Hillary whether she’d changed her strategy from her losing Iowa effort in 2008, and Hillary replied, "I am having a great time, can't look forward to any more than I am. Thank you."

That was the exclusive.

The “artificial shortage” media strategy reverses the dynamic, at least for now. Hillary won’t engage, so they can’t ask questions. The campaign can offer an occasional “exclusive,” but under their terms, which gives them plenty of leeway to control the kind of questions Hillary will have to face. The competition on the Republican side forces the three Senators to keep up their media blitz, but for now Hillary faces no such pressure and has lots of leeway to manipulate the media.

Can that work in the long run? Doubtful, although it might last until the convention if Democrats don’t put up a serious challenge to Hillary before then. At some point, though, Hillary will have to compete – and if she gets to wait until July 2016 to do so, she’ll be unprepared for the fight to come in the general election. The campaign downturns she has generated in every cycle over the last 24 years will hit at that point, when it would be too late for Hillary to adjust and correct it.

Still, even though the dynamics of the last few weeks have made Hillary look like a fool, her campaign appears to be following the advice of the old proverb: It’s better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

The outcomes of Hillary’s rollout are hardly ideal, but the alternatives were almost certainly worse. Time will tell if Hillary can actually put on a competent campaign, but for Team Hillary, they’ll take as much time as they can get before having that question answered.

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