NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- At a major gathering of conservatives here this week, it’s already August 2016. The Democratic presidential primary is over and Hillary Clinton is in the party’s nominee -- now if only Republicans could settle on a way to attack her.
Over the 30 years Clinton has spent in the public spotlight, the only constant in the way critics have gone after her is the degree of their ferocity. First, they called her a radical liberal feminist, later they tagged her as a corporate sellout.
Who will she be in 2016, according to 30-second attack ads? Republicans aren’t quite sure yet, in large part because they aren’t sure who they will be.
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Bashing Clinton may be the one thing that unites a Republican party whose deep fissures heading into 2016 were on display here at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The conference, where Republican presidential hopefuls throw red meat to conservative activists by beating up on Democrats, offers a window into the myriad ways Republicans will try to redefine Clinton.
John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, who is exploring a presidential run as an anti-Rand Paul hawk, spent the bulk of his speech going after Clinton on Benghazi. "Let's not ever forget Benghazi," he said. “That is a demonstration of her fundamental inability to understand what's at stake in the war on terrorism.”
Ironically, Paul himself also made the 2012 terror attack and “Hillary’s war in Libya” the centerpiece of his argument. Her “dereliction of duty” in Benghazi should “forever preclude her from higher office,” Paul said to cheers. “It’s time for Hillary Clinton to permanently retire.”
But most others steered clear entirely of the attack.
Jeb Bush focused on questions about the Clinton family charitable foundation’s fundraising from foreign governments. Sen. Ted Cruz followed a related track, saying, “Hillary clinton embodies the corruption of Washington.” Sen. Marco Rubio took an entirely different approach, saying the best way to go after Clinton is by calling her old news: “Yesterday.”
David Keene, the former president of the NRA and the group that puts on CPAC, worried the “yesterday” attack would backfire if Bush is the GOP’s nominee. “If the American people wake up in August of 2016 and see they have a choice between a Bush and a Clinton, millions of people will slit their wrists,” he told msnbc.
It was a common theme at CPAC, where there was plenty of concern about Bush. “Why don’t we just call it quits? Jeb and Hillary can run on the same ticket,” popular conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said from the stage.
Indeed, many of the attacks Republicans use against Clinton, from her financial ties to her wealth to her “yesterday” status, might be difficult to use if Bush is their nominee. It’s something Clinton allies see as a silver lining if Bush wins the nomination.
Chris Christie, for his part, tried to keep the focus in the present. Like many others, tried to tie Clinton to the current occupant of the White House, decrying the "Obama-Clinton vision of the United States.”
But that’s a mistake, says Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of the conservative group FreedomWorks. “Go after her on her own ground,” he told msnbc, “People are looking for something new and interesting.”
That’s precisely what former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the only Republican woman considering a run, did. She went after one of Clinton’s greatest strengths, implying the former first lady is a phony feminist. “She tweets about women’s rights in this country and takes money from governments that deny women the most basic human rights,” Fiorina said Thursday, citing the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of money from Middle East regimes.
Echoing several others on and off the stage, Fiorina also said Clinton accomplished nothing as secretary of state. But Rick Santorum, speaking Friday, actually built up Clinton’s foreign policy credentials. “The likelihood that we’re going to face a former secretary of state means that we’re going to need someone who has a long and deep understanding of foreign policy,” he said, touting the eight years he spent on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Meanwhile, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus threw the kitchen sink at Clinton, deploying many of of these lines of attack while adding his own. “Hillary barely comes out in public these days. If there’s not a private luxury jet and a quarter million-dollar speaking fee waiting for her, you can forget about it,” he said, echoing a message the RNC has been pushing in recent weeks.
In 2012, Democrats won in part by settling on a narrative of Mitt Romney early -- that he was an out of touch plutocrat -- and repeating it obsessively through Election Day. It wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice. At first, they focused on tagging him as a flip flopper. But ultimately, the emphasis on his record at Bain Capital proved lethal.
Republicans have no silver bullet for Clinton yet. But they still have plenty of time, since they’re not too concerned about anyone else winning the Democratic nomination.
“If she dies, they’ll probably have to stuff her and run her anyway,” David Keene said.