Hillary Clinton’s pre-game strategy? Be cool, tread carefully

Updated
Former U.S. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton arrives on stage to address the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2,...
Former U.S. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton arrives on stage to address the Vital Voices Global Awards ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington on April 2,...
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to Hillary Clinton, the punditry long ago all but abandoned the question of if she’ll run for president in 2016. Now, it’s all about watching how she’ll do it. Recent developments have left Clinton watchers delightedly parsing the former first lady’s nascent not-quite-a-campaign.

First, she worked on her social media cred. Clinton joined Twitter earlier this month, coyly teasing that her next role is TBD (to be decided). Later, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, split with President Obama on Syria, perhaps laying the groundwork to distinguish herself from her future predecessor. And the former first lady gave a heartfelt speech on economic opportunities for women last week in the president’s hometown of Chicago during a big event for the Clinton Global Initiative. Earlier this week, she scooped up an endorsement from Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri who is backing the effort to draft Clinton for 2016.

The Clinton ‘16 momentum certainly seems to be building.

“There’s an understandable impatience on the part of her supporters to get moving and she’s embracing that,” said conservative strategist Keith Appell.

Appell noted that Clinton’s busy few weeks are likely a welcome distraction from the negative press she received over Benghazi and reports of misconduct among some staffers when she was secretary of state.

Several Republicans have tried to blame Clinton for the security deficiencies at the U.S. consulate in Libya before the deadly attack, which killed four Americans, last September. Clinton had largely dismissed the criticism as Republican politicking. She told Congress that she takes responsibility for what an independent report called security lapses and systematic issues in the State Department. But Clinton said the GOP argument that there had been a cover-up was bogus and that she had not personally seen the requests for more security.

Recent polling suggests Republicans aren’t gaining much traction on their Benghazi focus. According to a recent survey by Public Policy Polling, voters trust Clinton over Congressional Republicans on the issue of Benghazi by a 49%-39% margin. Her approval ratings overall have remained high: over 50%.

“Now that she’s been out of office for nearly six months, and had a chance to recharge her batteries get back into a political and policy swing that this last couple of weeks you’ve seen it rev up,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “Her M.O. seems to be to “keep all options open.”

Clinton’s strategy: Carefully craft the narrative herself, without being too annoyingly on the nose, while attracting young voters, embracing Obama’s successes, and distancing herself from his more controversial decisions.

Take the event in Chicago–her first major public appearance since leaving her post as secretary of state. Clinton extolled the president on several issues that Obama has made central to his domestic agenda, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten and equal pay for women. But she also stressed the importance of creating jobs for young people and closing the gap on economic equality–critical issues that voters care about and that critics say Obama has failed to deliver on, at least to the extent his supporters had hoped.

“There are too many places in our country where community institutions are crumbling, social and public health indicators are cratering and jobs are coming apart and communities face the consequences,” she said.

Clinton’s is indeed beginning to rev up her public appearances. Since April, she has delivered remarks at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington, D.C., in addition to headlining the Women in the World Summit in New York and speaking at the National Multi Housing Council in Dallas.

Related: Hillary points to ‘unfinished business’ in second public speech


It’s not just domestic issues. Consider Syria. After months of hand wringing, the president has decided to arm the Syrian rebels–a decision battered by liberals and libertarians as being outside America’s interests, and filleted by hawks as being too little, too late. Clinton, who faced all kinds of headaches in 2008 for her mixed record on the Iraq War, clearly would be well served by staking out a clear stance on Syria, or at least avoiding embracing Obama’s policies, which could dog her in 2016 if things go south. Political observers noticeably raised their eyebrows when Bill Clinton said at a recent event that Obama ought to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war or risk looking “like a total fool.”

According to reports, Hillary Clinton pushed for greater involvement in Syria during her tenure as secretary of state, but opposing voices eventually prevailed. Her husband’s comments could be read as a sign that the Clintons are very wary of being tied too closely with Obama’s Syria action.

On Twitter, Clinton, once one of the most polarizing people in America, showed off her increasingly endearing sense of humor, a quality that has many voters in the under-25 set swooning. She described herself as a “hair icon, pantsuit aficionado glass ceiling cracker.” If the Internet were capable of standing ovations, Clinton would have received one.

The endorsement by McCaskill, who became the first in Congress to back the effort to draft Clinton, may be as much for Clinton as it is for her. The former Senate colleague of Clinton’s, after all, was one of Obama’s earliest supporters in 2008. But it certainly makes Clinton look great to have lawmakers endorsing her via super PAC Ready for Hillary, before even making a decision. McCaskill told msnbc earlier this week that Clinton called her only after she made the announcement.

Of course, it’s an easy move for McCaskill now that Obama’s in his second term and won’t be running again. Besides Clinton not even deciding to run yet, the endorsement is somewhat surprising since she’s not leaving even a tiny bit of room to back Vice President Joe Biden – who won’t rule out running for the nation’s top job. McCaskill’s move may be a strategic one to signal to women that they can switch to a female candidate regardless of who runs in what’s likely to be a heated primary.

Republicans hit back on a possible Hillary 2016 run this week too, launching super PAC “Stop Hillary 2016” in order to “prevent Americans from ever having to see another Clinton the White House.”

If Clinton is laying it on too thick, or if these rather subtle babysteps are an effective way to slowly but surely wade into the 2016 race – giving Clinton an evermore solid sense of inevitability – is yet to be seen.

“She and her staff worked very hard to create an aura of inevitability” in 2008, Appel said. “You want to say the increased activity probably helps her because it creates this aura of inevitability also. But it didn’t work the last time.”

Jill Alper, a Democratic strategist who worked on Bill Clinton and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns said, however, that Hillary Clinton is simply doing what she does, and the recent surge of activity isn’t anything to raise eyebrows over.

“She’s been resting and there’s a new recent level of energy around her activity. There’s definitely momentum, but it’s more about her taking a time out and a breather and now she’s getting back to the regular routine,” she said, insisting Americans are just used to seeing her in the spotlight, and after her brief hiatus, people are noticing she’s back. Alper added that it’s likely we’ll see more lawmakers like McCaskill on Capitol Hill throwing their weight behind Clinton.

“If she does at some point run again, significant Obama-type supporters are saying ‘hey we’re ready for this to happen’…It would only be natural. I would anticipate that to happen,” she said.

Clinton is undoubtedly carving a path of her own. What’s yet to be seen is if she would run off her husband’s legacy, Obama’s, a combination of both or something entirely her own.

Hillary Clinton's pre-game strategy? Be cool, tread carefully

Updated