Doyle McManus: Another Clinton presidential campaign?

September 27, 2013 

So, will Hillary Rodham Clinton run for president?

In an interview with New York Magazine published this week, the former secretary of state acknowledged that she's wrestling with the idea but still needs time "to weigh what the factors are" before "making a decision one way or the other."

While Clinton is weighing factors, her supporters are building a campaign operation. A group called "Ready for Hillary" has collected more than 1 million Facebook "likes" and compiled pre-emptive endorsements from a long list of national figures, including Bill Clinton campaign veteran James Carville, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and actress Eva Longoria.

"Ready for Hillary" hasn't been authorized by the not-yet-candidate, but it hasn't been discouraged, either; those lists would be awfully useful if there is a campaign.

And here's one more straw in the wind: Clinton has a new haircut. The scrunchies and ponytails are no more; the new coif is shorter, layered and more photogenic.

How soon does Clinton need to decide? "She doesn't have to declare now or in three months or six months," her husband, Bill Clinton, told PBS Monday. Notice he said "declare," not "decide."

The former president acknowledged that the old days of a one-year-long presidential campaign are over. "It's amazing how much longer they are now," he said. If his wife sticks to the timetable she used the last time she ran, she would announce her candidacy in early 2015, a little more than a year from now.

It may be too early for sensible voters to be thinking about the next presidential campaign, but it's never too early for the potential candidates and their wannabe staffers. "Everything that's going on now matters for the next campaign," noted John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and coauthor of "The Gamble," an important book on the 2012 campaign.

Does all this preparation guarantee a smooth path for Clinton to the Democratic nomination and the White House?

Not at all.

The 2008 Clinton presidential campaign was a masterpiece of poor strategy and worse management, but advisers promise it won't happen again. "She doesn't repeat her mistakes," longtime aide Melanne Verveer told New York Magazine.

Still, the 2008 effort suffered from a problem a 2016 campaign would also face: Clinton ran as a candidate of change, but she sounded like a candidate of tradition -- and she lost to a candidate who embodied bigger change.

That might not derail a well-run Clinton campaign in the Democratic primaries, even if she faces strong challengers such as Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (With one hypothetical exception: If Obama launches military action against Syria or Iran, Clinton would probably support the decision, and that might not go over well with Democratic voters.)

But the "change" factor is likely to be her biggest hurdle in a general election -- because after eight years of a Democrat in the White House, the Republican candidate, whoever he or she turns out to be, is sure to rely on an ancient slogan in American politics: "It's time for a change."

It's a slogan that works. Since World War II, there have been six presidential elections with no incumbent in the race; in five of those six, the party that had held the White House (in each case, for eight years or more) lost.

If Obama is less popular in 2016 than he is today -- if the economy hits another bump, for example -- the Democratic candidate's job will be even harder. But even if the economy is growing smartly and the incumbent president is popular, the presumptive successor's job still isn't easy; just ask Al Gore.

And none of those factors -- the popularity of the president, the future state of the economy -- are under Clinton's control.

"My advice to her has always been: Get healthy, write your book, do your charitable work," Bill Clinton said. "She will make a better decision about this political issue if everything is going well in her life."

But that's the easy part. To win, she'll need to find a way to distance herself from Obama without sounding disloyal. She's already made a gingerly start, telling New York Magazine that she "obviously" had moments of conflict with the president. "I had a very positive set of interactions (with him), even when I disagreed -- which obviously occurred, because obviously I have my own opinions," she said.

But that was only a start. Can Hillary Clinton emerge from the shadow of the men in her life -- both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama? That will be part of the drama of the 2016 campaign -- and it's already begun, whether or not she ultimately runs.

Doyle McManus, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, can be reached at doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com.

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