Hillary Clinton declared for president on Sunday with a video that proclaimed her campaign will be about America’s struggles. Or, to put it another way, that she’s focused on advancing the interests of everyday Americans — whatever their particular challenges are.
After a failed 2008 campaign that was far too much about her, the message was that Clinton realizes this second effort has to be about the voters.
But that’s an exceedingly difficult task for any frontrunner, and it will be more difficult still for a candidate constrained by her roles in two previous administrations and her innate personal caution.
Indeed, contemplating Clinton as she prepares for a 2016 presidential campaign quickly brings you back to Walter Mondale in 1984.
Like Clinton, Mondale was considered the prohibitive front-runner. In terms of experience, connections, fund-raising ability, and name recognition, the former vice president towered over his rivals.
Yes, there was plenty of political baggage from the administration he had been part of. Still, Mondale was viewed as one of the most competent and knowledgeable figures of his generation. None of his rivals seemed remotely in his league.
And then something small touched off something large.
Gary Hart, a little-known senator from Colorado, placed a very distant second to Mondale in the Iowa caucuses.
His Iowa showing triggered a political riptide — one that nearly washed Mondale away. Eight days later, Hart beat Mondale in New Hampshire. Hart quickly came to represent generational change, a challenge to the Democratic establishment, a questioning of old verities.
The two battled to the last primaries and beyond. Ultimately, Mondale only secured the nomination because of his pull with unelected super delegates.
Now consider Clinton. The status she enjoys in the Democratic Party is certainly equivalent to that which Mondale had back then. Right now, she towers over the rest of the possible Democratic field, which may include such figures as former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Republican-turned-Democrat Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who has been both a US senator and as governor.
Like Mondale, Clinton is well-regarded, but as with him, there isn’t a sense of electricity about her campaign. Nor is she necessarily capable of generating it. Cautious, constrained, calculating, she, like him, is a somewhat plodding presence on the stump.
And for all the talk of Clinton running a different kind of campaign this time around, it’s a huge challenge for anyone in her position to break out of classic front-runner’s mode. That is, of a candidate who thinks and analyzes too much, while acting or reacting too slowly and too timidly. An establishment frontrunner almost always ends ups with an electoral approach designed by committee and governed by caution. Despite a candidate’s starting intentions, such a campaign usually turns out to be less about offering bold ideas and more about minimizing differences that rivals can exploit.
That’s even more true given that Clinton will be torn between her moderate instincts and the desires of a party whose primary electorate has moved left since her last run and her husband’s last term.
Further, she must deal with very real Clinton fatigue. To paraphrase H.G. Wells’s observation about Queen Victoria, the Clintons have been a paperweight on the minds of Democrats for a generation. They come with impressive intellects and tremendous talents, but also with large liabilities, which range from a sense of above-the-rules entitlement to their tedious matrimonial melodrama.
All that helps explain why Hillary’s strengths are paired with a latent set of weakness: Admiration with trepidation, enthusiasm with exhaustion, respect and regard with reservations and reluctance, and a desire by her demographic cohort to see one of their own become president with the feeling among other voters that it’s time to turn the page generationally.
Her camp knows that her most probable path to success is making this campaign about the voters and their lives rather than about herself and her aspirations. That’s what her announcement video tried to do.
But given her celebrity, her history, her innate caution, and the symbolism of her campaign, it’s highly likely that the emphasis will be more on her than on whatever agenda she offers. The hazard there is that she’ll come to be seen as a step back into the past rather than a stride forward into the future.
All that is why, convention wisdom notwithstanding, her nomination isn’t likely to be a coronation or a cakewalk.
Nominating contests almost never are. Just ask Walter Mondale.