By Alexander Bolton - 08/06/13 09:00 AM EDT
Republicans have begun trying to damage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political image ahead of her expected 2016 White House bid.
The GOP calculates that it needs to make an early start in ramping up public scrutiny of Clinton — and that it will be too late if it waits much longer.
Its efforts are intended to make sure Clinton does not have the same big head start in 2016 that President Obama enjoyed in 2012. And it is focused on the media, which Republicans fear will rally to Clinton’s cause in the same way it embraced Obama in 2008.
As an initial step, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus on Monday pushed back against what he worries is the positive narrative beginning to take shape around Clinton.
He sent letters to the heads of NBC and CNN calling on them to cancel their plans to air a miniseries and a documentary, respectively, that one GOP official called “infomercials” for Clinton.
Priebus warned that if the networks do not cancel the programming by Aug. 14, he will seek a vote of the RNC to end its partnership with them for the 2016 Republican primary debates.
“Their actions to promote Secretary Clinton are disturbing and disappointing,” Priebus said in a statement. “I hope Americans will question the credibility of these networks and that NBC and CNN will reconsider their partisan actions and cancel these political ads masked as unbiased entertainment.”
Conservatives were dismayed by the media’s coverage of the 2012 presidential cycle, which focused on the squabbling of the Republican primaries, and treated Obama, in their view, sympathetically. Republican delegates who attended the 2012 convention in Tampa, Fla., were greeted by a billboard sponsored by the conservative Media Research Center, urging them: “Don’t believe the liberal media!”
“Your company has expressly stated that your choice to air the miniseries in the near future would avoid concerns of running afoul of equal time election laws,” Priebus wrote to Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment. “This suggests a deliberate attempt at influencing American political opinion in favor of a preferred candidate, not to mention a guilty conscience.”
Priebus told Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide: “Your credibility as a supposedly unbiased news network will most certainly be jeopardized by the decision to show political favoritism and produce an extended commercial for Secretary Clinton’s nascent campaign.”
The networks seemed caught off guard by the sharp criticism.
CNN said the RNC should reserve judgment until it knows more about the Clinton documentary. “Should they decide not to participate in debates on CNN, we would find it curious, as limiting their debate participation seems to be the ultimate disservice to voters,” CNN said in a statement.
NBC News distanced itself from the Clinton miniseries, which is to star Diane Lane.
“NBC News is completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project,” NBC said in a statement.
A Republican official said Priebus’s letter highlights GOP concerns the media will give Clinton an edge. “Our job is to ensure that the best playing field created for our candidates to compete,” said the official.
The Republican official said the letters to CNN and NBC were not intended as an effort to tear down Clinton but acknowledged the party needs to begin chipping away at her popularity.
A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed Clinton and Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, to be the two “hottest” politicians in the country right now.
Republicans have tried to dim Clinton’s star by linking her to scandal-marred New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. GOP strategists have highlighted ties between Clinton and Weiner, who is married to Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s top aides.
In a memo to reporters Friday, a group of GOP communications strategists faulted Clinton for not disavowing Weiner.
“Hillary Clinton, has stayed mum about all of it. For someone who has not-so-veiled aspirations to lead her party, she’s failed to show any leadership in publicly denouncing Weiner’s habits or his candidacy,” they wrote.
Republicans say they want to ratchet up the scrutiny on Clinton to create fatigue among voters by the time she launches her bid in 2015.
“The GOP worries that they won’t have the opportunity to get a fair shake with a large majority of the voters to make their case by the time they actually have a Republican presidential nominee,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who worked on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign.
“The whole case that Hillary’s trying to make that there’s something distinct and historic about her candidacy,” he added. “She wants to make Hillary 2.0 become History 2.0, meaning the first black president followed by the first woman president.” The GOP wants to say, “Not so fast,” he added.
Republicans have sought to keep the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in the news in an effort to maintain scrutiny on Clinton.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the attack, which happened while Clinton was serving as secretary of State, has emboldened al Qaeda.
“They attacked our consulate; they killed an ambassador, a year has passed, and nobody has paid a price,” he told CNN Sunday. “After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids thinking we’re weaker and they’re stronger.”
Graham predicted earlier this year that Clinton will held partly responsible for the breakdown in security, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“Benghazi is right at the list of challenges that Secretary Clinton will face. It happened on her watch and there are a great many remaining unanswered questions,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked on Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said Republicans are going negative because their party brand is too tarnished to run a positive message.
“It reflects the lack of a coherent strategy or an overarching brand for the Republican Party,” he said. “They don’t have a lot that they themselves can talk about that is affirmative or that voters are looking for. So they default to what is a line of attack that presumably works with their own base voters.”
He said the lines of attack would have limited traction beyond the GOP’s base.