Hillary's Book Tour: A 2016 Gut Check

The rollout of Hard Choices is widely being interpreted as a prelude to a presidential run, but it might really be a trial run to see how voters would react on the trail.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Hillary Clinton's much-anticipated book tour is here, and it's going to look a lot like a presidential campaign.

For a 2016-hungry media, the campaign simulacrum will be a chance to look for clues to a potential bid. For her legions of fans, it's a chance to see the former secretary of State up close and in the flesh. But for Clinton herself, the tour promoting Hard Choices will offer something more personal: a gut check.

"What she's going to be asking herself is, am I having fun? Am I enjoying this? Do I really want to do this again and potentially risk losing again?" said one former aide.

While Clinton is more familiar than nearly anyone with what it's like to run a presidential campaign, a lot has changed since her last bid eight years ago: She's older, and the personal costs have never been higher. Even as she's clearly leaning toward a run, it's a chance for due diligence.

Some of Clinton's most trusted advisers have reportedly urged her not give up her charmed life and charitable activities for a gamble, while her husband's former press secretary, Mike McCurry, who remains in contact with the former first lady, is convinced she might not jump in. "She's going to [shake hands in Iowa and New Hampshire] for the next two and a half years at age 65 when she could be doing all this great stuff on a global stage?" McCurry said in a recent interview with RealClearPolitics.

The book tour—with massive crowds, a schedule of 20-plus appearances in three weeks, heaps of media scrutiny, and a Ready for Hillary bus plastered with her name on it—will give Clinton a fresh taste of life on the trail, and help her team hone her message and operations.

Even if Clinton's book tour is more commercial than political—she's steering clear of politically important states and making two stops in Canada—the experience will be informative, said Joe Trippi, who managed Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

"She's going to have the ability to test the waters, without having to actually run," Trippi said. "She's going to get asked all the questions. It really is going to give her a good idea of what's coming."

When Clinton entered the race for Senate in 1999, she embarked on a "listening tour" across New York that helped inform her run. "The book tour will give her an opportunity to get to a lot of places that she hasn't been in a while," another former staffer said. "That energizes her, reconnects her, and helps hone her message."

Clinton's 10-city book tour supporting It Takes a Village in early 1996 helped set up her husband's reelection campaign, and in her 2003 memoir, Living History, she writes about cherishing the experience.

During a month when the Clinton White House was under intense scrutiny from investigators, the "only bright moments" came while promoting the book. "The crowds were huge and the audiences were warm and supportive, further evidence of the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation," she wrote in Living History.

But she also writes about presidential campaigns as long, grueling affairs undercut by "lies and manipulation." "Despite all the good advice we had received and all the time Bill and I had spent in the political arena, we were unprepared for the hardball politics and relentless scrutiny that comes with a run for the presidency," she wrote of the 1992 campaign.

The same could be said of her own campaign in 2008. But Chris Lehane, a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House, said the early timing of the book release, which allows her set her narrative before anyone can, and its well-orchestrated roll out, shows she's better prepared. "It certainly suggests that she has taken the lessons of 2008 and applied them," he said.

Book tours have long been proving grounds for presidential candidates. For Barack Obama, the throng of young people lining up to see him—and in some cases camping overnight on the streets—helped convince him to take the plunge.

For Colin Powell, a tour supporting his much anticipated 1995 book both pushed him to seriously consider a run and eventually helped him choose to abandon it. Bill Smullen, a longtime aide who accompanied Powell on the tour, said they were "overwhelmed" by the attention and encouragement the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs received. The outpouring made him seriously consider running, but after two weeks mulling it over, Powell decided he didn't have the "fire in the belly" to do what was necessary to run, Smullen said.

When he released his book No Apology in 2010, Mitt Romney, like Clinton, had run and lost once before and was considering another run. "We were very conscious of the fact that this was going to be a project that would of course have an impact on his consideration on running," said Romney aide Kevin Madden. But mostly, Madden said, the book was an opportunity for the former governor to promote his policy vision for the country.

And it will likely be the same for Clinton, whose book is expected to weave her personal experiences as secretary of State in with some policy prescriptions.

In any case, Bob Shrum, who worked on the campaigns of both Al Gore and John Kerry, says Clinton thrives in public settings like a book tour. "She's an instinctive public personality," he said. "I don't see this as a trial run, I see this as the first phase of the campaign."

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Alex Seitz-Wald is a reporter for National Journal

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