As Hillary Clinton eases into an August pseudo-vacation, she — and the news-consuming public — may finally get a respite from the mud sling of her book tour. With non-stop attacks from her opponents and vigorous scrutiny from the media, the summer often felt like a one-woman presidential campaign, even though the real thing is more than a year off and Clinton has not yet said if she’ll be a part of it.
Her opponents scored some blows, and she made a few notable stumbles of her own, but there could be a silver lining in the exhaustive early drubbing — her opponents might run out of new attacks to sell to an increasingly bored public.
Few people have been more scrutinized than the former first lady: Clinton has been the target of a hostile independent counsel with subpoena power in the 1990s, Republican opposition researchers during two Senate bids, and even supporters of fellow Democrat Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign cycle. The book tour tilled much of what ground remained. It’s hard to find anything that isn’t already old news.
“There’s only one plausible reason why they’re throwing the kitchen sink against her now — they’re scared. They know if she runs, she wins. And that involves throwing every piece of oppo research at her now,” said Adrienne Elrod of Correct the Record, the rapid response group that has become Clinton’s main semi-official defender in the press.
In political dark arts, timing is critical and campaigns often wait for the right moment to release what they’ve dug up — usually close to Election Day, not two years out. Would team Clinton prefer to have the conservative FreeBeacon bring to light in June 2014 explosive never-before-heard audio of the former first lady discussing her legal defense of a child rapist, or for a mainstream publication to write about in June of 2016?
During the book tour, Clinton had the chance to fortify her defenses against a variety of criticism. “We are sharpening our responses to the incoming, it’s our boot camp,” said Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser to the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary.
Nonetheless, the fact that the FreeBeacon (and the professional researcher the website hired) could find anything new at all suggests there may be more out there. “This idea that we’ve been wasting our best oppo in 2014 is wishful thinking on their part,” said Tim Miller, one of Clinton’s main antagonists and the executive director of the Republican super PAC America Rising, which has become the hub of opposition research for the Republican Party.
Shauna Daly spent plenty of time digging through Clinton archives as the deputy research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. While the Clinton paper trail is “endless,” she said, the GOP’s anti-Clinton message sounds more like a “cacophony” than a coherent and damaging attack. “Some people don’t always have the best restraint,” she added.
The newly fractured political infrastructure means that instead of official party organizations, where dirt is doled out strategically, attacks are now mostly driven by a plethora of new super PACs and ideological media outlets that compete with each other for donors and influence. The Republican National Committee, Democrats like to crack, has been reduced to sending out an intern dressed as a squirrel to stalk Clinton.
“I suspect that on the right, the funders want to see some bang for their buck. But, what they’re doing feels frenetic, not strategic,” said Sefl, who used to work as an opposition researcher for the Democratic National Committee.
Miller denies that, saying they’re attacking Clinton because she’s effectively running a presidential campaign — even if it’s not called that. “Our only objective as an organization is to make sure our nominee is in the best position to defeat the Democratic nominee once we reach the general election in 2016,” he said.
Ryan Williams, who had to defend Romney every day from attacks while serving as a spokesperson for the candidate’s 2012 campaign, noted that the best anti-Clinton material has come from Clinton herself. “She’s exposed herself as a very gaffe-prone candidate,” he said, referring to her “dead broke” comment and others. “Before this book tour, we weren’t even talking about Hillary Clinton as an elitist.”
The downside of Clinton’s perceived front-runner status is that every misstep she makes is news. Meanwhile, the rise of Twitter — which was not widely used during her last run — means those missteps are disseminated to political junkies instantaneously.
But most voters aren’t Twitter junkies, and it’s much harder to reach them, said Rodell Mollineau, who recently stepped down as president of American Bridge, the Democratic opposition research super PAC. Republicans are sending up trial balloons to see what works, he said, so Democrats need to be ready to pop them as they come.
“Their belief is that if they keep throwing it out and throwing out and throwing out, it will eventually get into the public consciousness. That takes time,” he said.
That means you can expect to hear a lot more about Clinton’s wealth, age, and speaking fees — not to mention Benghazi and the Russia “reset” — during the next two years, if she runs. Clinton has said she’ll decide by the end of the year.
In her new memoir “Hard Choices,” the former secretary of state wrote about wanting to do a round of media interviews in Pakistan at the nadir of U.S. relations with the country. “You’ll be a punching bag,” her staff warned her. Her response? “I smiled and replied, ‘Punch away.’ “