Toughening Up Hillary

KEENE, NH - APRIL 20:  Democratic presidential hopeful and former U.S. Sectetary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to employees
KEENE, NH - APRIL 20: Democratic presidential hopeful and former U.S. Sectetary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to employees of Whitney Brothers, an educational furniture manufacturer, at a round table discussionon April 20, 2015 in Keene, New Hampshire. This marks Clinton's first major political event in New Hampshire after announcing her campaign for president a little over a week ago. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

I write today to challenge what is fast becoming conventional wisdom in the political world -- in particular, the notion that Hillary Clinton really needs a strong primary challenge to "toughen her up" for the upcoming race with whomever the Republicans decide upon. When you deconstruct the logic behind this idea, however, it falls apart.

There are many reasons for wishing Hillary will have a competitive primary race with at least one other strong Democratic candidate. The biggest of these is the hope that someone will "challenge her from the left," and thus draw Clinton further in that direction. Liberals have a healthy amount of mistrust of Clinton, and would really like to see an Elizabeth Warren (or perhaps a Bernie Sanders) campaign to challenge Hillary on the finer points of fighting income inequality and Wall Street banks.

Ideology aside, the pundit class (including many liberal commentators) are already pretty bored with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and we're still a year away from most of the primary contests. The punditocracy craves a dustup in the Democratic primary race for the crassest of reasons: entertainment value. I shouldn't even be that exclusive -- there are plenty of voters who would also enjoy lively Democratic Party debates before the primaries. What is the alternative, really? Hillary sitting in a chair on a stage by herself? Yawn. At best, it appears we'll have Hillary sitting on a stage while the other Democrats vie to be named her veep. Not exactly a recipe for excitement, in other words.

There's a third reason a lively primary fight might be hoped for by some, but I should say that so far I don't see any signs of this happening. Barack Obama supporters were (justifiably) angry with Hillary Clinton in 2008 for a number of reasons, but the final one was that she refused to gracefully exit the race, even though mathematically it had become all but impossible for her to win the nomination. Clinton kept running for two or three months longer than most candidates would have done. She refused to throw her support behind Obama until the last vote in the last primary was counted, which proved what the mathematically-astute had known for weeks: she couldn't win. There was a lot of hype at the time about Hillary's supporters being so upset that they'd refuse to vote for Obama (remember the "PUMAs" -- "Party Unity My Ass"?), but this never really manifested itself outside of the blogosphere. So it's pretty far-fetched to think that Obama supporters could have held a grudge for eight years against Hillary and would now wish her a bruising primary battle, on the grounds of it being her just desserts. It could happen, I suppose, but I don't think it's very likely.

But all of these reasons for wishing a lively primary for Hillary are just that: reasons for wishing. None of them address the practicality argument at all. To put it another way, these are reasons for wanting a primary challenger for Hillary, not a reason for why she might need a primary challenger. This is the argument that doesn't hold water: Hillary needs a challenger to toughen her up, to sharpen her campaigning skills, and to guarantee that when the general election rolls around she'll be in top form. On the face of it, it seems a cogent argument.

But while it might be desirable (for other reasons) to see Hillary in a tough nominating fight, it is by no means necessary for her at all. There are two sides to this argument, both with handy recent historical examples. Barack Obama was unquestionably toughened up by Hillary's campaign. He faced many hard questions and had to refine his positions accordingly. Because Hillary's team threw a lot of mud at Obama, much of it was "old news" by the time the general election campaign began -- which took the wind out of Republican sails when they attempted to use the same negative tactics. On the flip side of this coin, Mitt Romney had to run a grueling primary campaign against multiple strong opponents. But it didn't do him any good in the general election at all. In fact, it hurt his chances because he had been forced to move so far to the right that tacking back to the center just wasn't possible. Granted, the two primary races were different, but other examples can be used just as easily (Obama and Romney are merely the most recent).

Hillary Clinton is a different sort of candidacy, though. I say this because she has the highest possible name recognition imaginable. You could poll 1,000 Americans on what they thought about Hillary Clinton, and my guess would be that at least 990 of them would have some opinion (positive or negative) about her. Very few would respond: "Hillary who?" So Hillary doesn't even have that biggest of first steps most other candidates have to face: introducing yourself to the American public. Everybody already knows who she is.

But the real reason the "she needs to be toughened up" argument falls apart is that it completely ignores reality outside of the Democratic primary race. Sure, if you vowed to read only news about what other Democrats are saying about Hillary Clinton for the next year, you could make the argument that she really needs a strong primary challenger. But that would be ridiculous, because there will be plenty of media attention given to the Republican primary race during that period.

If this were a normal (although wide-open) presidential race, the two parties would be much more concerned with their own primary races. Nobody would know (until the end) which candidate would appear victorious from the other side. So very little energy would be spent (at least, at this early a stage) on attacking any particular candidate across the aisle, because doing so might be a wasted effort if the nomination ultimately went to someone else. The real Democrat-versus-Republican mudslinging wouldn't begin until it was obvious which two people would be in the final race.

That is probably not going to happen this year, obviously. Republicans are already off and running in Iowa and New Hampshire, and they all know exactly who they're going to face in the general election. Because it is so obvious, they have already begun aiming most of their attacks against Hillary Clinton, rather than (as would happen in a normal year) at each other. So Hillary Clinton isn't just going to have one or two Democrats "toughening her up," she's going to have 20 or more Republicans incessantly beating up on her.

Again, pushing aside all the reasons people might want a Democratic challenger for Hillary, it's pretty easy to see that it won't be necessary. The onslaught of anti-Hillary invective has already begun, and it's only going to get more and more frenzied as the Republican nomination race heats up. This is as it should be, since each and every Republican candidate will be auditioning to be the best Hillary-basher of the lot. That's how they figure they're going to win the general election, so they'll be straining to outdo each other in this regard. Who will be snarkiest? Who will be downright vicious? Who will skate over the line of outright misogyny? The contest will be fought over who can score the most points against Clinton, like it or not.

Hillary Clinton is going to be the favorite target for Republicans. However, by doing so this early, they might just undercut the strength of all their mudslinging. The Clintons are no strangers to having mud slung at them, as the right-wing orgy of Clinton-hating in the 1990s should easily prove to anyone who was alive back then (see: Richard Mellon Scaife). Bill Clinton's campaign moniker was actually "The Comeback Kid" because he overcame so many stumbles.

The Republicans risk, by their early targeting of Hillary, playing their cards too early. The American public, as a whole, doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to politics in general, and they have a notoriously short attention span. So any "scandal" that happens quickly morphs into "old news." And old news isn't considered effective in the waning days of a campaign. The easiest example of this might be Benghazi, in fact. Republicans were so sure they had the Hillary-killing scandal to beat all Hillary-killing scandals that they pretty much stomped the issue into the ground. Nowadays, the word "Benghazi" prompts nothing short of eye-rolling among most of the public. "There they go again," is the overriding feeling. Likewise, by next November's election, my guess is that few people are going to care about Hillary Clinton's email server. The story will have been hashed over so many times for so long that it will have lost whatever shock value it might once have had.

So what might conceivably happen is that the Republican field focuses so strongly on Hillary at the very beginning of their primary race that they run out of ammo by the time the general election rolls around. This is precisely what people are predicting when they repeat the conventional wisdom of, "Hillary needs a primary challenger to toughen her up for the general election," though. This is, after all, exactly what Hillary Clinton did for Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008. She threw everything but the kitchen sink at Obama, and it helped him in the general election because by the time John McCain brought the same things up, the Obama campaign could just shrug and say, "We've already addressed that," and move on.

Granted, having the Republicans be sort of a de facto primary opponent will be different than having an actual Democrat opposing Hillary. The attacks will certainly come from a different direction. Because of this, though, Hillary won't be pulled too far to the left. All she'll have to do is appear reasonable and sane in response to all the hysterical screeching from the Republican primaries. That'll be a pretty good contrast for her to paint. By the time the Republicans do decide on a nominee, the cupboard of "new mud to sling at Hillary" will be all but bare. The public will also be tired of Republicans endlessly rehashing Hillary's record, as what might be called "Clinton-bashing fatigue" sets in.

Though it runs counter to the conventional wisdom inside the beltway, the truth is that by being the sole target for Republicans all throughout the primary campaign season, Hillary Clinton will likely emerge much tougher than she would if all she had to cope with was a single Democrat pulling her slightly leftwards. This is why what seems like an intuitive idea falls apart. If there really were a truly competitive race on the Democratic side, then Hillary would have to face less hostile attacks from Republicans (whose focus wouldn't be as clear), and fewer of them. With no challenger, she's going to have a much tougher time in the primary season, because she won't just be facing a few Democrats or one Republican, she'll be subject to attacks from 20 or more Republicans. And that, I have to say, will indeed toughen her up just fine.


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