A high-profile book tour. Countless TV interviews. Political combat with a Democratic primary candidate and Donald Trump. A year before the US presidential election, it looks like a campaign and it sounds like a campaign but it isn’t a campaign. At least, not as far anyone knows.
Yet a recent surge of activity by Hillary Clinton, combined with reports and columns suggesting the Democrats have not found the right candidate, have made a 2016 rematch a fun, speculative and potentially intriguing topic of Washington conversation.
The sense that something strange is going on began a few weeks ago. A book is a traditional vehicle for a candidate. The former secretary of state launched The Book of Gutsy Women, co-written with daughter Chelsea, and embarked on a tour that included events, speeches and late-night TV appearances.
Clinton, 72, whose narrow, devastating defeat by Trump was one of the greatest upsets in political history, has also become more prolific and pugnacious on Twitter. On 25 September, after revelations about Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine, she wrote: “The president of the United States has betrayed our country … He is a clear and present danger to the things that keep us strong and free. I support impeachment.”
On 30 September, Clinton tweeted: “The president is a corrupt human tornado.” On 3 October, after Trump invited China to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden: “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”
Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still countHillary Clinton
And on 8 October, when Trump suggested Clinton should enter the presidential race, she retorted: “Don’t tempt me. Do your job.”
Perhaps most oddly of all, Clinton also appeared to lash out at a fellow Democrat. In a podcast interview, she said Russia had “got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate”. It widely assumed to be a reference to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who mounted a furious response.
This week the comeback tour continued when she appeared with supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. As she was introduced with husband Bill, Clinton gained longer and louder applause than the former president, whose affair with a White House intern has received fresh scrutiny in the #MeToo era. Unlike his wife, he has been remarkably silent during the Democratic primary. Candidates show little appetite for his endorsement.
Addressing law students, Clinton appeared more humorous and at ease than on the campaign trail. The final question concerned whether the guests were rooting for the Washington Nationals in baseball’s World Series. Bill interjected: “I guess I should go first. I’m the only one that’s not running for anything. Ever. She may or may not ever run for anything but I can’t legally run for president again.”
The Nationals won the deciding game in Houston and Hillary managed to make a political point: “World Series champs should get statehood.” The following night, she even performed in a Halloween sketch for The Daily Show on Comedy Central, revisiting the horror of the electoral college that cost her victory in 2016.
’It’s time to move past the Clintons’
All this could be dismissed as no more than a smart way to promote a book, were it not coinciding with mild panic in Democratic ranks. The primary has attracted a record number of candidates and record diversity yet, many argue, failed to produce a John F Kennedy, a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama, in terms of natural political gifts or charisma.
“None of them are what you would call inspirational,” said John Zogby, a Democratic pollster, noting that few percentage points separate leading contenders Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist, wrote of Buttigieg last month: “He’s so very strong but so crucially weak – which is the story of the Democratic primary, whose leading candidates are all agonizingly unsafe bets. Without a nanosecond’s pause, I’d vote for any of them over Trump. But will enough other Americans? The stakes are enormous and reassurance is elusive.”
The paper also published a news report headlined: “Anxious Democratic Establishment Asks, ‘Is There Anybody Else?’” It told how a recent meeting of donors discussed whether Clinton, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg or even former first lady Michelle Obama might yet enter the race.
I don’t think she would do it and I don’t think she should. It would be late and very divisiveBob Shrum
“Mrs Clinton and Mr Bloomberg have both told people privately in recent weeks that if they thought they could win, they would consider entering the primary – but that they were skeptical there would be an opening, according to Democrats who have spoken with them,” the Times said.
Fox News continues to run polls that include Hillary Clinton. A recent example puts her on 43% and Trump on 41%.
Speculation has been fuelled by Biden’s uncertain debate performances, tendency to trip over his own words and vulnerability in fundraising and polls. A New York Times Upshot/ Siena College survey in late October found Warren in the lead in Iowa on 22%, followed by Sanders on 19%, Buttigieg on 18% and Biden fourth on 17%.
It was particularly bad news for moderates who fear Warren and Sanders will take the party too far left, giving Trump ammunition for his charge that Democrats are embracing socialism and raising taxes. If Biden’s candidacy collapsed, the centre lane could yet open for Clinton.
But such a scenario remains very, very unlikely. Zogby said: “If Biden flags and fails, it would be for the same reasons it wouldn’t work for Hillary Clinton. She carries the same baggage, including questions about health and age. She just wasn’t a good candidate and arguably wouldn’t be a better one this time around. She has the flaws built in.”
He added: “If there’s anything that could unite both wings of the party, it’s that it’s past time to move beyond the Clintons.”
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to the Al Gore and John Kerry campaigns, was equally skeptical.
“I don’t think she would do it and I don’t think she should,” he said. “It would be late and very divisive. I am dubious that she would win the nomination, so why would she do that to herself?”
He added: “She had the election taken from her in 2016. I don’t think she ran a very good campaign but she would have won anyway if it was not for [then FBI director] James Comey and Russia. So there are people who feel it would only be just if she got a second bite at the apple. On the other hand, there are a lot of Democratic voters who are saying let’s move on. That’s one of the problems Joe Biden is having.”
Asked about Democratic fretting over finding the right nominee, Shrum replied: “That’s the bed-wetting brigade in the party donors. That’s not the primary voters.”