7 Answers About the Clinton Campaign

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When Donald Trump locked up the Republican nomination in May, I put together a compendium of the GIFs I’d included in my 2016 presidential cheat sheet, tracking Trump’s progress from joke candidate to object of morbid fascination, then on through resignation to his apotheosis. In a similar spirit of self-flagellation, I thought it’d be worth marking the occasion of Hillary Clinton clinching the Democratic nomination by reviewing a piece I wrote back in April 2015, when she jumped into the race. That piece was “10 Questions About the Hillary Clinton Campaign.” Three were rather utilitarian. How’d I do on the other seven? Like the Clinton campaign so far, it’s up and down.

3. What will her campaign be about? 

I wrote:

This is perhaps the biggest unanswered question. Everyone knew she was running; but why? What will her campaign theme be? Is it about income inequality? Foreign policy? Change? Staying the course? We still don't know.

This is still largely true. Clinton has borrowed some ideas from Bernie Sanders, and she more recently seems to have found her voice in attacking Donald Trump’s fitness for office. Her election-night party on June 7 was all the historic milestone of a female nominee. But the raison d’courir remains a bit vague. As The New York Times delicately put it, “It has not helped that her campaign has cycled through a half-dozen slogans, from championing ‘everyday Americans’ to ‘fighting for us,’ ‘breaking down barriers,’ and, most recently, ‘stronger together.’” She still doesn’t seem to have a great answer.

4. What has she learned since 2008? And does she really want to be president? 

There’s no question that Clinton has run a tighter ship than eight year ago, when her campaign devolved into a terrifying nest of infighting, backbiting, and other overwrought gerunds. Of course, it’s much easier to be stable and happy when you’re winning, even if you’re not winning by as much as you’d like; and there was one moment, after the New Hampshire primary, when leaks suggested Clinton would shake up her staff. But she stayed the course, and she won the nomination. Her staff also learned the lessons of the Obama campaign’s 2008 delegate-hunting prowess, realizing that proportional delegate-apportionment rules meant a close loss to Sanders was good for roughly an equal split of delegates, and steaming slowly and steadily toward the requisite threshold. Clinton is still not a natural campaigner, though.

5. How will Republicans attack her?

I suggested that the GOP would hesitate to accuse her of playing the “woman card,” but might assail her as a dynastic candidate, assail her foreign policy, or question her trustworthiness. The first part has been largely true. Despite Jeb Bush and Rand Paul being out of the picture, the dynasty question has largely been irrelevant. Trump has attacked her foreign policy and her trustworthiness, though he’s notably weak on both himself. Notably, Trump seems determined to use the scandals of the 1990s to attack both Hillary and Bill Clinton, whereas conventional wisdom held that those issues no longer packed any punch. But Republicans have also been handed one big gift, which brings us to our next question …

6. Are there any skeletons left in the closet?

Boy, were there! The story of Clinton’s private email server had first emerged in March, but the full scope and gravity of the story hadn’t sunk in—certainly for me. It’s been a great boon to Republicans, especially with an ongoing investigation and the specter of a possible indictment hanging over her head. That and a series of other slow-boiling controversies, including conflicts of interest at the State Department and the Clinton Foundation, are also liabilities for the Clinton campaign.

7. What role will Bill play?

So far, the former president has mostly avoided the kerfuffles he kicked up in 2012. Staffers say he’s deeply involved behind the scenes, offering sage advice, but knowing not to interfere too closely with the professionals. He has been a mostly valuable surrogate, hitting the trail across the country, even as it’s clear that he isn’t quite the vital presence he once was. (Then again, a shrunken Big Dog is still pretty darn big.) His one major lapse was a confrontation with Black Lives Matter protestors in April.

8. Will she get a credible challenger?

I wrote:

 Martin O'Malley is a talented and accomplished politician, but if his campaign so far is the stiffest competition that Clinton gets in the primary, she looks to be in for smooth sailing …. There's no groundswell behind another candidate—not O'Malley, not Jim Webb, not Bernie Sanders, and certainly not Lincoln Chafee...

And now, for a rebuttal:

Yeah, I goofed that one pretty bad. O’Malley really wasn’t much of a challenge; Webb and Chafee disappeared quickly too. But Sanders turned out to be one of the biggest political stories of the year. How’d I miss it? I don’t think I could have predicted his success—no one other than his most avid fans did, back then—but my breezy dismissal had a lot to do with Sanders’s own reluctance as a candidate. He seemed ambivalent about running and peevish about the demands of campaigning. When he finally announced he’d run, it was in a hastily called and haphazard press conference outside the Capitol. Watching his transformation into a juggernaut campaigner with masses of adoring followers has been fascinating. And although he didn’t quite pull an Obama ’08 on Clinton, he prevented her from clinching the nomination until the penultimate election day of the primary.

9. Can she repair her relationship with the press?

It’s a mixed bag. The Clinton campaign made some conciliatory gestures, recruiting some flacks who’d gotten along well with reporters in past jobs and de-emphasizing the Philippe Reineses of the world. But Clinton gets lots of bad press (attention Sandersistas who are convinced that The New York Times is in Brooklyn’s pocket: You know who broke that damaging email story, right?), and the traveling press corps remains justifiably frustrated at the lack of access, even in the form of standard press conferences, which she holds roughly, well, never.