Politics & Policy

Hillary’s Webb of Paranoia

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Team Clinton gets nasty with potential rivals, almost comically early.

Assume, for a moment, that U.S. News & World Report is accurately reporting this:

While they aren’t acknowledging [2016 Democratic candidate Jim] Webb publicly, Clinton loyalists are keeping an eye on him privately. The week before Thanksgiving, staffers of Philippe Reines, Clinton’s longtime communications guru, pitched talk radio producers on the racy, sexually charged writings in Webb’s novels, according to a source. Webb was forced to fend off a similar attack in 2006, when [his Virginia Senate opponent] Allen accused him of “demeaning women.”

All of the polling puts Hillary Clinton way ahead of Webb and every other potential Democratic rival. Webb’s best performance in any poll so far is a whopping 3 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. (Admittedly, she led Barack Obama in early 2007 as well.)

Why on earth would the Hillary team go after Jim Webb this early? And why recycle an attack that had absolutely no impact when it was used in the 2006 Senate race? What is this, some form of mudslinging pregame stretching?

At this point, Webb is the only declared Democratic candidate in the 2016 field. Outgoing Maryland governor Martin O’Malley sent eleven staffers to Iowa, suggesting a serious interest in running. Elizabeth Warren most clearly represents the progressive grassroots’ id right now, but she continues to play coy, resorting to a robotic present-tense denial in interviews. Vice President Joe Biden isn’t taken particularly seriously by anyone and polls in single digits half the time.

The early shot across Webb’s bow is a strange response, considering how Hillary, with enormous advantages in fundraising, organizational experience, and name ID, would be much better off with multiple Democratic primary opponents instead of one. If the primary comes down to Webb and Clinton on the night of the Iowa caucuses, Webb — or any other Democrat — automatically becomes the vessel for objecting to a Clinton coronation. Any Democrat not sufficiently enthusiastic or pleased with the prospect of a Hillary nomination would give him a serious look, even if Hillary remained the serious favorite. It’s much better for Hillary to have the not-Hillary vote split two or three ways instead of unified behind one rival.

Worse yet, what if O’Malley flops, Biden withdraws after a tepid early reception, Warren never enters, and the prickly Webb, who retired from the Senate after just one term, decides to end his bid early? The nearest that either major party came to an uncontested coronation was the Democrats in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore swept all the primaries against former senator Bill Bradley. If you think Democrats are grumbling about Hillary Clinton now, wait until they see a primary ballot with only one name on it.

Hillary needs some “tomato cans” — an old boxing term referring to opponents of middling to poor skill, lined up to give a big-name fighter some easy wins.

Jim Webb might be the perfect tomato can. If the Democratic party’s grassroots voters suspect that Hillary Clinton is too hawkish, too centrist, too focused on older voters and working-class whites, and insufficiently connected to the mindset of the party’s progressive younger voters and minorities . . . Webb might be the only Democrat who can make her look like Barack Obama.

In that U.S. News article, one of Webb’s former Senate aides describes his old boss, “I think his roots and family roots are very much in the Democratic Party. But it’s not inner-city, racial Democratic politics. It’s very rural, poor Democratic politics.”

Inner-city, racial Democratic politics is Democratic politics today. Rural poor voters — particularly white ones — don’t carry much weight in Democratic-party politics anymore. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared in 2012 that “rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.” The GOP’s advantage among rural voters continued in 2014. Perhaps Jim Webb’s persona and biography could persuade more rural, more male, more blue-collar, and more white voters to vote in a Democratic presidential primary. But he’s swimming upstream, both among these demographics and the Democratic consultant class. Most Democratic strategists are convinced that the party’s long-term future is tied to the “coalition of the ascendant” — racial minorities, Millennials, and college-educated white women. The policies and rhetoric of this administration and its closest media allies are attuned to those demographics — talking up gun control, immigration reform, college-debt relief, gay marriage, criticizing America’s police, and so on.

Jim Webb will evoke Andrew Jackson for the party of Al Sharpton, Bill de Blasio, and Sandra Fluke.

Why is the Hillary Clinton machine taking early swings at such a long-shot candidate, with such an unlikely strategy for victory?

Presidential candidates usually get better the second time around — experience helps them avoid the same mistakes, they are more prepared for the challenges of the campaign trail, and so on. Mitt Romney clearly was a better candidate in 2012 than in 2008. John McCain was better in 2008 than in 2000.

But what if Hillary isn’t going to be any better than in 2008? What if she and her closest advisers are getting worse? Hillary’s book tour from this summer offers some evidence of this — she declared she and Bill Clinton were “dead broke” when they left the White House, got static for her position on gay marriage, and had her first public fight with the Obama White House. She continues to make extremely lucrative speeches, including some at public universities, despite the bad publicity.

It’s not unusual for a politician to have an “enemies list.” But only Hillary Clinton has an enemies spreadsheet:

As one of the last orders of business for a losing campaign, they recorded in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet the names and deeds of members of Congress. They carefully noted who had endorsed Hillary, who had backed Obama, and who had stayed on the sidelines — standard operating procedure for any high-end political organization. But the data went into much more nuanced detail. “We wanted to have a record of who endorsed us and who didn’t,” a member of Hillary’s campaign team said, “and of those who endorsed us, who went the extra mile and who was just kind of there. And of those who didn’t endorse us, those who understandably didn’t endorse us because they are [Congressional Black Caucus] members or Illinois members. And then, of course, those who endorsed him but really should have been with her . . . that burned her.”

Their spreadsheet formalized the deep knowledge of those involved in building it. Like so many of the Clinton help, Balderston and Elrod were walking favor files. They remembered nearly every bit of assistance the Clintons had given and every slight made against them. Almost six years later, most Clinton aides can still rattle off the names of traitors and the favors that had been done for them, then provide details of just how each of the guilty had gone on to betray the Clintons — as if it all had happened just a few hours before. The data project ensured that the acts of the sinners and saints would never be forgotten.

(It’s a sad statement on our soulless times that even political vindictiveness is too important to be left to something as subjective as a candidate’s instinct; no, this, too, must be data-driven and “metrics-oriented.”)

If anything, going after perceived enemies is an even bigger obsession in Clinton’s circle now than during the 2008 campaign:

To this day she’s surrounded herself with media conspiracy theorists who remain some of her favorite confidants, urged wealthy allies to bankroll independent organizations tasked with knee-capping reporters perceived as unfriendly, withdrawn into a gilded shell when attacked and rolled her eyes at several generations of aides who suggested she reach out to journalists rather than just disdaining them. Not even being nice to her in print has been a guarantor of access; reporters likely to write positive stories have been screened as ruthlessly as perceived enemies, dismissed as time-sucking sycophants or pretend-friends.

It is not hyperbolic to declare Hillary Clinton the most paranoid presidential candidate since Richard Nixon:

Amy Chozick is the reporter tasked with covering the Clintons — and the runup to the now-almost-inevitable Hillary Clinton presidential bid — for the New York Times. Sounds like a plum gig, right? Until, that is, a press aide for the Clinton Global Initiative follows you into the bathroom.

Chozick describes a “friendly 20-something press aide who the Clinton Global Initiative tasked with escorting me to the restroom,” adding: “She waited outside the stall in the ladies’ room at the Sheraton Hotel, where the conference is held each year.”

In this light, Hillary’s allies’ making a ludicrously early and unpersuasive effort to shop dirt on long-shot Jim Webb doesn’t look so unexpected. It’s just what the Hillary 2016 campaign is going to be: paranoid, needlessly nasty, and making unnecessary enemies.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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