Hillary Clinton is back. Six months after her defeat, Clinton has waded into the middle of our postelection battles more quickly and more bluntly than any other losing candidate in modern times.
She has accused President Trump of pursuing what appears to be “a commitment to hurt so many people.” She called House Republicans’ healthcare bill “shameful.” She proclaimed herself “part of the resistance.” She’s traveling the country giving speeches. She’s reportedly organizing a new political action committee to raise money for Democratic causes. And she’s writing a book to explain her side of the 2016 presidential campaign. She says she doesn’t expect to run for president again. But she has been careful not to rule it out.
Clinton’s impulse to get back into the fight is understandable. Democratic politics has been the cause of her life, and she’s surely entitled to work through her grief over the campaign. If her book turns out to be a candid self-examination of what went wrong — a big if, based on her self-protective previous memoirs — that could be healthy for her party.
But by moving so fast and so visibly, and by keeping the door open to another presidential campaign, Clinton risks harming not only her own image, but the anti-Trump resistance she wants to help.
Clinton’s presence in the center of any stage could make it harder for talented young Democrats to rise to the top.
Start with her interview last week with Christiane Amanpour of CNN. Asked to explain her loss to Trump, Clinton said she took “absolute personal responsibility” — but then listed all the external spoilers she faced: FBI Director James B. Comey, Russia, WikiLeaks, the media and misogyny.
Although those items certainly belong on the list, she left out the missteps of her own campaign. “Jim Comey didn’t tell her not to campaign in Wisconsin,” noted David Axelrod, who helped Barack Obama defeat her in 2008.
And Clinton reminded everyone that she didn’t do as badly as it looks. “I did win more than 3 million votes than my opponent,” she said.
Meanwhile, she said she doesn’t mind getting into Twitter wars with the president. “Fine,” she said. “Better than [him] interfering in foreign affairs,” Clinton said of the prospect Trump would tweet about her. “If he wants to tweet about me then I’m happy to be the diversion.”
Not a great strategy. I suspect Trump would like nothing better than endless verbal battles with Clinton, to remind his voters of the candidate they voted against instead of the ever-more-apparent flaws of the president they voted for.
Indeed, Trump took the bait after Clinton’s interview.
“Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” he tweeted. “The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?”
As for the new Clinton political action committee, “Onward Together,” it’s unlikely to convince Bernie Sanders voters that the party is devoted to campaign finance reform.
Other Democrats aren’t sure they need Hillary Clinton’s help to raise campaign money in the age of Trump. Jon Ossoff, the House candidate in suburban Atlanta, has raised millions without her.
The new super PAC, if that’s what it is, would put the Clintons in the role of kingmakers, using money to help candidates they favor. And it will look suspiciously like a framework in the making for Hillary’s still-not-ruled-out 2020 campaign.
So about that campaign, in case she’s thinking about it: bad idea.
It’s possible that Clinton doesn’t really want to run again — that she’s simply trying to bolster her brand and maintain her influence. She knows she’ll get far more media attention — for her book, her speeches, and anything else she chooses to say — if she keeps the possibility of a presidential run alive.
But there’s no reason to believe a third Hillary Clinton campaign would be easier or more successful than her first two. Rank-and-file Democrats aren’t clamoring for her to run. A Harvard-Harris Poll in March found the former candidate in fifth place with support from only 8% (ouch!) of her own party’s voters — after Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren. The top choice, tellingly, was “someone new,” at 45%. Clinton’s presence in the center of any stage, moreover, could make it harder for talented young Democrats to rise to the top.
Hillary Clinton has more than earned her right to be a major voice in American politics. She’s smart and forceful on a raft of issues, from working-class job creation to foreign policy. But she’s not great at running a presidential campaign. She’s tried twice, in races where she began as the presumptive front-runner, and lost both times. That’s enough.
Maybe it’s time she moved on to higher pursuits. Jimmy Carter lost a presidential election in 1980, Al Gore in 2000. They devoted themselves to causes they believed in: international peacemaking for Carter, climate change for Gore. Both won Nobel Peace Prizes. That wouldn’t be a bad legacy — even for someone who hoped to shatter a glass ceiling.
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