Hillary's question: not if, but how

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Former U.S. Seceratary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the 10th National Automobile Dealers Association Convention on January 27, 2013. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Let’s be clear about this much: no matter what the soothsayers on cable TV tell you, Hillary Clinton is no more likely to clear the Democratic field and avoid a primary in 2016 than Dennis Rodman is to become her secretary of state. Walter Mondale couldn’t pull that off in 1984, and Al Gore couldn’t do it in 2000, and the conditions for Washington-anointed frontrunners have only gotten exponentially harder since then.

Somewhere out there is a guy you’ve barely heard of – name of O’Malley or Schweitzer or Hickenlooper – whose idea of fun is spending every night of the month on a different couch in Iowa. At this point in 2002, remember, most people thought Howard Dean was a brand of sausage.

The good news for Clinton is that if she decides to run (and I’m inclined to believe she hasn’t yet), she’ll start out with a huge national fundraising apparatus and the loyalty of party regulars. The bad news, of course, is that this is exactly the kind of thing that makes her vulnerable to another grassroots rebellion. In modern presidential politics, every day is Bastille Day.

So if you’re Clinton, the question you have to be asking isn’t whether to run so much as how.  How do you run against the status quo you personify – or, at the very least, make yourself something more than the default choice of the establishment?

Part of this conundrum is tactical; Clinton is now a celebrated stateswoman, and it’s not clear how you preserve that stature while still running a less conventional kind of campaign in the early primary states. (The last former secretary of state to run for president was Alexander Haig in 1988, and it’s safe to say he isn’t the model Clinton wakes up emulating.) But the deeper question, if you’re Hillary Clinton, is less about the atmospherics of a campaign than about its animating idea.

The mainstream of the party has now veered back toward its more populist and pacifist instincts, venting its suspicion of the emerging military-digital complex, along with outright contempt for the wealthy and for conservatives generally. That’s not where Clinton is. She maintains close relationships on Wall Street, where executives are not so secretly pining for her return to the arena, and she’s advocated a firmer American hand around the world, most recently in Syria. Her worldview reflects the governing establishment of both parties more faithfully than it does the Democratic base.

This is exactly what most analysts think tripped her up last time, and there will be pressure for Clinton not to make the same mistake twice. The easiest way to break free of the status quo label and avoid a serious challenge, some Democrats will tell her, is to become something more like this cycle’s Barack Obama – to break from her allies inside the big banks and the Pentagon and to channel the fury that’s been building since the Bush years.

If anyone could get away with this kind of ideological feint, it would be Clinton. Wall Street is so desperate for a champion in power right now that the executives who support her would probably stand by and applaud while Clinton burned them in effigy, just so long as it got her to the White House. No Democrat in Washington is going to mind terribly if Clinton puts on a John Edwards mask and starts railing against the rich, if that’s what she thinks she needs to do.

Except that isn’t necessarily what she needs to do. For one thing, Democrats have a different set of complaints about Washington than they had six years ago, and it isn’t only about populism. Back then, they hoped that a younger, less embattled voice, emanating from a charismatic new protagonist, could shake the system free from paralyzing partisanship. Increasingly, though, they seem to have concluded that while Obama has their best interests at heart, he simply doesn’t know how to leverage power and has never really mastered Washington. (As I wrote last week, Obama’s aides did little to change that perception when they basically admitted, in the run up to his State of the Union address, that he had mostly given up on legislating altogether.)

In other words, the party (and, to a large extent, the country) may now be coming back around to Clinton’s rationale in 2008, which sounded pretty tinny at the time – that only a seasoned veteran of Washington’s dysfunction could hope reform it.

And as Mitt Romney could surely tell you, ideology really isn’t the currency of modern campaigns; authenticity is. Nothing screams “status quo” more loudly than a candidate who will say whatever she has to. This was Clinton’s real downfall in 2008. Her very first bumper sticker proclaimed that she was “in it to win it,” as if simply getting Democrats back to the White House was a compelling end in itself. It wasn’t.

Should she ultimately run again, Clinton might actually do herself a greater service by holding her ground. When we talked about Clinton, David Axelrod, the strategist who spent a career running campaigns against the establishment before guiding Obama to the White House, told me: “The quickest way to authenticate yourself, and the hardest thing to do, is to be willing to put yourself at risk by standing up for things you believe, even if it means taking positions every once in a while that people don’t see as the smart political move.” Which could mean that the real way to prove you’re not just a projection of the status quo isn’t necessarily to mouth tired condemnations of the establishment, but rather to speak hard truth to the partisans who indict it.

Clinton could tell the Democratic voters of Iowa and New Hampshire that, yes, inequality is a defining problem for the society, and yes, America risks becoming a surveillance state resented around the world. But the answers don’t lie in demonizing her financiers or the intelligence agencies she knows well, or even in ridding the earth of Republicans. The answers lie in tossing out the outdated orthodoxies of the last century and wrestling more thoughtfully with the technological moment, as Bill Clinton started to do in 1992.

As Joe Trippi, who was the architect of Dean’s antiestablishment insurgency, puts it: “She’s almost the perfect person who can argue that both ideologies are obsolete and that you need someone who understands the old system to put forward some ideas that are new.”

Cautious Clinton advisers will say that the political moment is sure to shift before 2016, so she doesn’t have to figure any of this out now. And that would probably be true for another candidate. But like it or not, Clinton is already at the center of a fast-cohering machine, much of it directed by people who barely know her. By the times she gets into the race, if she does, she will inherit a disorderly army of fundraisers, self-proclaimed strategists and professional climbers. It will be too late, then, to consider what the rationale for her campaign ought to be, beyond keeping a lot of powerful Democrats in power a bit longer.

If you’re Hillary Clinton, you’ve already been down that path. You know where it ends.

Follow Matt Bai on Twitter.

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