The GOP's 2016 Hillary paradox

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The GOP can’t live with Hillary Clinton running for president, but they can’t live without her either.

Most Republicans see the former secretary of State as a formidable challenger, albeit a flawed one. Her sheer presence does perhaps more to excite the GOP base than any other Democratic Party figure alive today, aside from President Obama.

It’s the Clinton paradox: The candidate they’re most worried about beating is also the candidate they may most want to run against in 2016 to both draw out their voters and open up donors’ pocketbooks. 

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"If Hillary Clinton runs, she brings a such a questionable record with plenty of old and new baggage that her candidacy will likely light up Republicans’ intensity to keep her out of the White House. Everything from strong Republican fundraising numbers and tremendous grassroots support will be aided by a Clinton candidacy,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former congressional leadership staffer.

From Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) to Ted Cruz (Texas) to, most recently, Ron Johnson (Wis.), Republican presidential prospects have knocked her as eminently beatable to rev up their own base

But that boast is more than just bluster — it’s an assertion that’s based in the facts of the past few months as she stumbled through her book tour rollout and revealed she still has many of the same flaws that tanked her unsuccessful bid in 2008.

Over the past two months, Clinton has often come across as stiff or combative in media interviews, especially over the fallout from the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

Never comfortable with the press and skeptical of journalists, she’s made repeated gaffes on the issue of her wealth that have contributed to the perception of her as out-of-touch, one of Republicans’ favorite volleys against her in advance of 2016. 

Matt Beynon, an adviser to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who’s considering a 2016 bid, noted she may not deserve the reputation she has as a gifted politician.

“President Clinton was probably the best politician of his generation and far too much of his aura is automatically transferred to her,” he said, noting that she’s lost the only truly tough high-profile race she faced, against President Obama in 2008. 

Her husband has indeed defended her on the wealth issue, but Hogan Gidley, a longtime adviser to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Santorum, both of whom are considering 2016 bids, said that may have made it even worse.

“She doesn’t have the same credibility with blue-collar workers that Bill Clinton does, because Bill Clinton lived it. Bill Clinton grew up poor. She’d have trouble making that case against someone like a Mike Huckabee, like a Rick Santorum, who have lived it, who can speak to middle-class, blue-collar workers,” he said.

That lack of credibility could undermine her ability to engage in what’s expected to be the key debate of the next presidential election: How to improve the economy and help the middle class succeed.

And on the likely second and third issues — health care and foreign policy — she would arrive on the stage with considerable baggage as well, having led the failed 1994 health care reform effort and presided over a largely unremarkable period as secretary of State.

Indeed, Beynon also knocked her “less than stellar record as Secretary of State, where opportunities to make a major impact in Iran, Syria, Libya and a half dozen other hot spots were spoiled,” and her tenure as a senator from New York was “devoid of any major legislative accomplishment.”

His critiques are old ones, because Republicans already have much of the Clinton playbook written — in part by President Obama’s team. But they’re no less potent than they were in 2008, and Republicans have the next two years to build a narrative around her before Election Day.

While that record offers the GOP a trove of comments and policy issues to mine for attacks, it’s also one that uniquely fires up the GOP base.

The other potential Democratic presidential contenders have flaws, but none have the ties to such hot-button issues among the GOP grassroots as the attacks on the consulate at Benghazi, the 1994 health care reform effort and Bill Clinton’s impeachment as Clinton.

In order to remain competitive on the national stage, Republicans need to turn their base out. Clinton could be the rare Democrat that creates enthusiasm among the bases of both parties.

“There’s no one that quite excites the Democratic base like Bill and Hillary Clinton — but there’s no one that quite excites the Republican base like the Clintons, either,” Gidley said.

Republicans also say she’s a fundraising draw like no other Democrat, both within the grassroots and big-dollar donors. Tim Miller, executive director at GOP opposition research shop America Rising, said while the group doesn’t do a significant amount of small-dollar fundraising, “to the extent that we do, Hillary is by far the biggest draw.”

“I think there is lots of passion on our side in trying to stop Hillary, looking forward to a 2016 campaign, and I think certainly she is going to inspire a high level of intensity from our members,” he said.

That’s true for bigger donors too, Miller noted: “All across the board, nobody likes her.” 

The fundraising draw is twofold: Donors contributing because of a concern over what a Clinton presidency would mean for the nation, but also because she is seen as so formidable, and her political machine is expected to be so strong.

Other potential rivals who are seen as less of a threat to the seemingly inevitable Clinton may be less convincing for donors to open up their pocketbooks for 2016.

Democrats laugh off the GOP's apparent quandary, saying they're just running scared of their own highly fluid and somewhat controversial field of possible candidates. 

“One thing is obvious, Republicans don't want to run against Hillary Clinton. That's why they are running a full campaign, now, to stop her from entering the race," said Adrienne Elrod of American Bridge's "Correct the Record," a group already established to defend the former first lady from GOP attacks. 

"Republicans know she will win. You don't expend that kind of money, capital and time unless you are scared. Republicans are well aware that her forward thinking vision for the middle class and the record of accomplishment she has built can't be stopped," she continued. 

Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) top 2008 campaign advisor Charlie Black, however, cautioned Republicans to “be careful what you wish for” with a Clinton nomination. 

‘She will be extremely organized and well-funded — a lot of the Obama team that defeated her and defeated us twice will be working for her. She’s not a charismatic politician, but I think she’s basically solid. The appeal of having a woman president is significant,” he said.

But Black admitted that narrative has played out before, prior to Clinton’s implosion last time. 

“If you asked us a year out, we said we’d rather run against Obama than Clinton,” he said of Team McCain, “but we didn’t realize how his charisma and his story would catch on, and we didn’t realize she would turn out to be somewhat of a plodder as a candidate.”

Could it happen again?

“I’m not saying it couldn’t,” said Black. “But I don’t think we ought to pull for her to be the candidate.”

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