The rollout of Hillary Clinton’s new memoirs, Hard Choices, was not a resounding success for the former secretary of state. She stuck her foot in her mouth regarding her family’s vast fortune. She had trouble answering questions about her evolution on gay marriage. Critics, on the whole, found the book tired and shopworn.
Yet her poll numbers remain surprisingly solid. Surveys conducted by Quinnipiac University, Fox News, and Rasmussen Reports—all taken since the book’s release—show her with comfortable leads nationally over Rand Paul, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush. A mid-July CNN poll shows her with generally strong favorable ratings, although not as positive as they were when she wrapped up her tenure at State. Even so, respondents said they thought her to be a “strong and decisive leader” who “generally agrees” with them on the issues, can “manage the government effectively,” and “cares about people” like them.
What lessons are there to draw from these numbers? The first, and probably most obvious, is the disconnect between the political class and the greater public. Clinton’s book rollout was a disaster among politicos and cable news obsessives, but people who do not dedicate inordinate time to politics and policy hardly seemed to notice. While this might be disappointing for conservatives, who would like to see Clinton’s numbers brought back to Earth, it is nevertheless a good reminder that what matters in the Beltway does not necessarily play in Peoria.
The second lesson becomes apparent when we think of Clinton’s numbers in terms of Weekly Standard online editor Daniel Halper’s new book, Clinton, Inc. As Halper shows quite clearly, the Clintons are obsessed with brand management and have become exceedingly skilled at maintaining the improved reputation they have developed since the dark days of the Lewinsky scandal. This reputation is not going to fall apart simply because of a bad book rollout. The collapse of the Barack Obama foreign policy—of which Clinton was an integral part—apparently has done little to diminish it. Even Benghazi has hardly made a dent.
While the 2014 midterm election is still three months away, it looks as though the Republicans are set to do quite well. Still, Clinton’s continued polling strength cannot but cast a pall over GOP prospects for 2016. Republicans hope that a faltering Barack Obama will damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances. It’s true that unpopular presidents generally drag down their successor nominees. John McCain was hurt by George W. Bush, Hubert Humphrey by Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson by Harry Truman, James M. Cox by Woodrow Wilson. But Clinton has something that McCain, Humphrey, Stevenson, and Cox all lacked: a national reputation built over a quarter-century of assiduous brand management.
The early signs of the 2016 Clinton campaign suggest a subtle break with Obama that will reinforce her unique identity. Writing for the New Republic, Anne Applebaum took a careful read of Hard Choices as a piece of early campaign literature and concluded that Hillary Clinton is planning to run a campaign akin to Richard Nixon’s 1968 “man in the arena” strategy. She is battle-tested, experienced, ready to make the hard sacrifices for the country, and above all somebody who can be counted upon:
Clinton hopes to be . . . deeply non-ideological, a centrist. She intends to run as a hard-working, fact-oriented pragmatist—someone who finds ways to work with difficult opponents, and not only faces up to difficult problems but also makes the compromises needed to solve them. Again and again she portrays herself sitting across the table from Dai Bingguo or President Putin, working hard, searching for a way forward. Similar methods, presumably, can be applied to the Republican leadership.
The problem for Republicans here is stark: They have run a campaign like this for the last half-century. It has met with little success in the last 20 years, and it has never worked against the Clintons; Hillary Clinton’s numbers suggest she would be able to “sell” the public on this problem-solving image better than the GOP nominee could. Given a choice between a Republican and a Clinton offering basically the same thing, there is little reason to believe that the country will select the Republican. Nor, for that matter, can Republicans rest on their oars and assume that Obama’s sinking reputation will pull Hillary Clinton down as well. After all, it hasn’t yet.
What, then, is the best response for the GOP? It is simply this: The party must wrap itself unabashedly in the garb of reform. If Hillary Clinton offers herself as the wise and learned hand who will rely upon her decades of experience to guide the ship of state, Republicans have to argue that her experience is exactly what the country doesn’t need at this moment. They need to convince the public that, by being in Washington for the last quarter-century, she is too committed to a broken status quo that is in desperate need of change. The party then needs to lay out a credible and salable agenda for that change.
This should sound familiar, for it is how Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008. A message of reform resonated six years ago, and it could very well resonate again (so long as it is carried by somebody other than Obama!). Now as then, the country is tired and frustrated with the status quo. The people appear to want a change in course.
Granted, this is unfamiliar territory for the Republican party. From Dwight Eisenhower to Nixon to Gerald Ford to George H. W. Bush to Bob Dole to George W. Bush to McCain to Mitt Romney, “fresh and new” are not its calling cards! Only Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan broke with tradition, and only Reagan was a political success. The party is more comfortable offering a “Return to Normalcy,” even if the country doesn’t want normalcy.
If Hillary Clinton offers a Return to Normalcy in 2016, it is a fair bet that the GOP will not be able to beat her by competing on the same terrain. Instead, Republicans should focus assiduously on maximizing their gains in this midterm election, take a few weeks to enjoy (hopefully) their victory, and then have a serious conversation about exactly what kind of change they want to offer the country in 2016. For that appears to be the best—perhaps the only—way to beat Hillary Clinton.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.