Hillary Clinton has not yet announced whether or not she will be a candidate for president in 2016, and already there is a PAC aimed at thwarting her candidacy. The creatively named Stop Hillary PAC is committed to trying to destroy Clinton's aspirations by running negative ads and otherwise seeking to portray her in the worst possible light. Clinton remains the front-runner for her party's nomination, should she run, but it is possible that the right is making a mistake by attacking Clinton.
When Clinton left office in January of this year, she was poised to be a very strong general election candidate for 2016. She still would be a strong candidate against a Republican, but it is not obvious that she would fare better than other lesser known Democrats. While Clinton has always been better known, for better and for worse, and more polarizing, than any of her possible opponents, including Vice-President Joseph Biden, the political environment has changed since she left her position as Secretary of State.
When Clinton left office she was broadly viewed as having been a very successful Secretary of State, ably guiding U.S. diplomacy and foreign relations for four years while drawing increased attention to human rights issues, notably around women and LGBT people around the world. Clinton deserves credit for her good work at the State Department, but that tenure will very possibly be seen differently by 2016, and not because of Benghazi. Benghazi will likely fade away except for among fanatical opponents of Hillary Clinton, but the direction of foreign policy during the Obama administration will not fade away.
The various NSA and surveillance related issues which have come to the forefront in recent months, the overthrow of the elected government in Egypt followed by increased turmoil and violence there, and the possibility of U.S. engagement in Syria, which is unlikely to end quickly or easily, will all contribute to a revised assessment of Obama's foreign policy and Clinton's role in those policies. Although much of this has happened, or come to light, since Clinton left office, it will be difficult for her to persuade voters that she had no role in any of these events and policies, which may be the defining traits of Obama's second term.
Should Clinton run, she will still be the best known candidate from either party, with a very strong understanding of policy and politics, and an extremely impressive resume. She will not, however, be seen as having new ideas or new energy. Nor will she be able to break from the Obama administration on foreign policy. This could be a weakness in an electorate that will be tiring of Obama, and for whom a candidate with a stronger record of accomplishment on domestic policies and no responsibility for recent U.S. foreign policy could be more appealing.
It is easy to imagine a Republican campaign against Clinton. Republicans would try to dredge up all the decades old stories about Clinton to mobilize the base and, if they were smart, would begin now to puncture holes in the narrative of Clinton as an extraordinary Secretary of State. Regardless of how well she performed in that position, the ongoing problems of U.S. foreign policy will make her vulnerable to these charges.
A Clinton candidacy will make it very hard for the Democrats to present themselves as a forward looking party, as Clinton has uniquely strong ties to both of the last two Democratic administrations. It is true that Bill Clinton is currently very popular, but his popularity and perceptions of his presidency have waxed and waned since he left office in 2000. If the Democrats want to be seen as the party of the future, nominating a candidate who can plausibly present him or herself as less of a Washington insider, would be a good start.
The positive aspects of a Clinton candidacy should not be overlooked either. She obviously has the intelligence, experience and toughness to withstand any campaign against her and to be a very good president. It is unlikely that any Republican opponent would be able to demonstrate a better command of the issues then Clinton.
Clinton and President Obama's fates have been intertwined since they ran against each other for the Democratic nomination in 2008. By appointing Clinton as Secretary of State, Obama gave her career new life. Clinton's work at the State Department, in turn, reflected very well on the Obama presidency and helped him get reelected. The final act of their complex and interrelated political lives will play out in the 2016 election. If the next three years continue to be filled with news of NSA spying on ordinary Americans, interventions gone awry in the Middle East and the continued weakening of American influence, however, the story may not end well for Clinton.