The danger of Clinton fatigue


For Hillary Clinton, the problem with Anthony Weiner’s candidacy is supposed to be that it conjures memories of her own marital troubles. It’s not good to have an ongoing public discussion of the parallels between Weiner’s wife and former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin (who is standing by her man) and Clinton (who did a version of the same). But didn’t voters reconcile themselves Clinton’s personal past long ago? Plus, as the Weiner three-ring circus adds more rings and more freak show characters by the hour — the whirling communications director of expletives, the pouty former intern, and the dishy phone paramour (phonamour?) — Weiner’s behavior and the mushrooming calamity of his public life surpasses anything Bill Clinton could conjure up.

But, for Hillary Clinton, the problem with the Weiner fiasco may not be the memories but the mishigas. Though she and her husband have nothing to do with this campaign, the episode does bring to mind a familiar feeling about the Clinton enterprise — that it was always surrounded by some kind of drama. “That’s what we were talking about with No Drama Obama,” says a veteran of Obama’s 2008 campaign reflecting on the Weiner episode. “That’s how we ran against her.”

Anthony Weiner will almost certainly be long gone, forgotten or irrelevant when and if Hillary Clinton runs for president. But even if the Weiner problem doesn’t’ linger, the episode highlights two challenges that Hillary Clinton 2016 will face. The first is how she will dispel the drama question that attends her family name and present herself afresh, and the second is whether the drama of the kind kicked up by Weiner gives her pause about running again.

The issue lurking behind Clinton drama is really one of Clinton fatigue. Presidential campaigns, like Christmas, seem to come earlier every year. With Hillary Clinton as a possible candidate, this has exacerbated the trend. She is a popular subject and she would be the most viable female candidate ever. So CNN just announced that it has contracted a documentary of her life. NBC has a miniseries in the works. Both ventures are literally banking that Clinton will run for president. Sure, it’s 90 degrees outside, but might as well put up the lights. The problem with this trend is that by the time a candidacy actually rolls around, everyone will be thoroughly sick of the enterprise. The tree will be a collection of needles at the base of some scrawny branches.

President Obama was the most fresh-faced candidate in modern times. He was biracial, had an unfamiliar background, and said interesting things. Now Democrats are lining up to nominate the most encrusted candidate in a long time. Hillary Clinton has been at the center of two political trends: the feeding frenzy media that cares less and less about substance and the rise in partisanship that has targeted the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies with a special intensity. That can be wearying as the press obsesses over familiar ground and as new episodes like the Weiner unpleasantness allow the press and elites to indulge their Hillary obsessions.

Clinton does not invite all this attention, but she must respond to it, which means we are treated to rounds of stories quoting people from the Clinton camp. That is likely to wear people out long before the next piece of drama – whatever it is — from the Clinton arena: squabbling aides, a misunderstanding about what Bill Clinton just said, or another round of endless feminist and post-feminist debate about some tiny choice Clinton has made.

Of course, the Clinton campaign could make a concerted effort to limit the drama. Good luck — lots of it is not in her control. The other option is to make a clean break with the past, much as Clinton did at the State Department. The great triumph of Clinton’s tenure there, until the Benghazi tragedy, was that it was drama free. Not only were there no public distractions, she added to her presidential bona fides: Staffers speak glowingly of her management abilities, something that was not in evidence during her first White House run.

Another possibility is that the public gets tired of the press’ Clinton fascination and decides to tune it out, marking it down to a media ever-more incapable of distinguishing the frivolous from the meaningful. The “drama” will no longer be Clinton’s but a creation of the media and the partisans who just can’t get over her. This week, Matt Drudge was pushing a supposed new tape from the Lewinsky affair. From this posture, Clinton’s ability to weather a delegitimized media’s scrutiny and abuse from the right for so many years becomes an asset. It means she has experience, grit, and tenacity. Those voters who like Barack Obama but think he lacked the toughness to steamroll the obstacles that faced him might imagine that Clinton would be able to gut it out.

Clinton is a battler, but is she interested in endless battle? The Clinton connection to Anthony Weiner is stupid and frustrating for her. Clinton has nothing to do with the race and she has nothing to do with most of the people who are in the press speaking about her or her husband’s motives. She can do little to fix this condition. That’s what the campaign will be like: Days and days of this kind of foolishness. Clinton won’t be able to avoid it, even if the Democratic race feels like a coronation.

It’s not that she’ll have to face some yet to be found wonder-candidate like Obama. She will have to face Hillary Clinton the Myth, the Cartoon and Media Creation. The Weiner episode demonstrates how animated those characters can be. It doesn’t require Clinton’s actual involvement at all, and yet story after story is produced, analysis spools out across the airwaves, and interns are sent to the tape files to pull up old footage of this or that thing. Is Hillary Clinton ready for a constant dose of all that?

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

© 2013, Slate.

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