Is Hillary Clinton Peaking Too Soon?

By Jill Lawrence

July 11, 2013

Crack organizers from President Obama's campaigns are the latest political honchos to join the Clinton-for-President movement and, like others involved, they say they are just trying to make things "Ready for Hillary" if she decides to run. But the bandwagon effect is fueling an "inevitability" narrative that damaged Clinton in 2008, and is allowing her no reprieve from politics.

The Ready for Hillary super PAC announcement of a partnership with 270 Strategies, coming on top of earlier testimonials from prominent Democrats, feeds the impression that the non-existent Clinton campaign is a runaway train about to reach top speed (albeit without an engineer at the controls). Former Clinton campaign aide Mo Elleithee says the actual significance of the new partnership is merely that "there are a lot of people that want her to run. That's all it means. She is not in this race yet and there's no guarantee that she ever will be."

The early and intense focus on Clinton recalls 2008, when she was wrongly assumed to be the prohibitive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. The constant spotlight now means Clinton remains a political target even as friends and associates say she is trying to focus on advocacy, speeches, and writing a book about her tenure as secretary of state. "What they're doing is fantastic," Elleithee says of Ready for Hillary, but "I do think it is adding to the hyper-politicization of every move she makes." He says her advocacy for women, children, and families, a lifelong crusade, is more important to her right now than politics.

Still, even as she tries to exit the arena for at least a brief respite, Clinton is taking care to maintain her political viability, as her husband once said in another context. She's not joining boards or giving speeches in controversial venues. Her upcoming memoir will discuss "how to navigate the challenges of the 21st century." There are indications a 2016 campaign would not involve Mark Penn, who was emblematic of the failures of her 2008 primary race. And according to one Clinton family adviser, there is a recognition that the 2008 campaign marked the end of an era. "They're very sensitive" about the need to run a "forward-looking, modern campaign" in 2016 that takes into account the revolutions in technology and other campaign tools, the adviser said.

At this point, the only apparent decision the former senator and secretary of state has made is to keep her options open. Clinton associates say she does not need to make a decision on running until late next year or early 2015. In the meantime, they view Ready for Hillary as a useful vehicle to channel grassroots energy and support for Clinton.

Harold Ickes, a Clinton family friend and former deputy White House chief of staff, has raised money for Ready for Hillary in Washington and New York and received no indication the Clintons are pleased or displeased. "If they were unhappy, there are ways to make that known," he says, and adds: "I'm not asking people to put big money into it, because nobody knows if she's going to run or not."

Ickes says the modest amounts being raised are for things like operational expenses, web ads and, now, 270 Strategies. Ready for Hillary said Wednesday that the firm, founded by Obama campaign veterans Jeremy Byrd and Mitch Stewart and named for the number of electoral votes it takes to win the presidency, will lead its organizing strategy and build its field operation. The idea, said senior adviser Craig Smith, is that if and when Clinton makes a decision, "she'll have the grassroots army she needs to pave her way to victory and the White House."

Stewart says the new grassroots organization will be an aid to Clinton in her deliberations. "I don't view our role with Ready for Hillary as pressuring her," he says. "We really view our role here as building the space so she can make the decision. And one of the factors is, 'Will there be support for my candidacy?'"

The partnership with Ready for Hillary is a no-lose proposition for 270 Strategies. As one party strategist put it, "This is where the money is" at the moment. And if Clinton ultimately chooses not to run, the lists and infrastructure built by the 270 Strategies team will be among the most valuable resources in politics.

Stewart confirms that Ready for Hillary is not a volunteer gig for his firm but declines to say how much time will be devoted to this client, beyond "the time necessary" to apply the expertise he and other Obama veterans have accumulated. He says a vast majority" of Clinton supporters likely will hold the same values as other Democratic candidates, making the 270 Strategies prep work valuable to them if Clinton passes on a race.

Like others interested in a Clinton bid, Ickes sees the 270 Strategies development as irrelevant to whether it happens or not. His list of factors is almost perfectly balanced between pro and con.

On one side of the ledger, "the presidential bug is a very hard bug to kill." Furthermore, "my very strong sense is that she would like to see a woman president in her lifetime, and when you look at the landscape, it's a pretty short list. Maybe even a list of one."

And yet, "she'll be 69 if she runs," facing the rigors of a campaign followed by the rigors of being president for four or eight years. "We have watched presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama literally grow white hair in front of our eyes faster than paint drying," he says. In addition, "You look out and you wonder how much can presidents get done these days?"

By Jill Lawrence

July 11, 2013