Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton appears to be making progress toward regaining control of her campaign after three months in which questions about the past have sometimes overshadowed her focus on the future.
But only success in next year’s primaries and caucuses can validate those efforts and ease underlying concerns about her candidacy.
In a broad-ranging economic speech, she countered positions of both Republican and Democratic rivals and outlined her own policies, following up with well-crafted proposals to increase productivity through profit-sharing and revamp capital gains laws to reward longer-term investments.
After promptly endorsing the deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program, she underscored her political primacy with sessions bolstering backing from Democratic members of Congress and a strong performance at the first all-candidate Iowa “cattle show.”
She thus signaled her determination to run her campaign on her own terms, always a challenge in a day of instant news and multiple outlets.
In a sense, she is taking a page from the campaign manual of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who built his successful 1992 campaign on a series of substantive speeches. But she also showed the methodical, issues-based approach aides say she has honed in three decades of public life.
“This is part of what she does, she grinds it out,” communications director Jennifer Palmieri told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.
Her economic speech made short-term news by sharply criticizing three potential Republican rivals. But her main goal was to present “the platform upon which future policy proposals will rest,” policy adviser Jake Sullivan told the Monitor breakfast.
She chided former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for saying Americans should work longer hours, said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made his name “stomping on workers’ rights,” and called Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s tax plan “a sure budget-busting giveaway to the super-wealthy.”
Her framework, which seeks to combine the goals of fairness and growth with proposals aimed at both current inequities and future challenges, received a mixed response.
The conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal said her agenda “sounded like a bootleg from President Obama’s stereo — with the volume turned up and stuck on repeat.” But conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that “she’s cleared the first political hurdle in this campaign” with an agenda that “will excite the progressive base without automatically alienating the rest of the country.”
Though she didn’t mention any Democratic rivals, she echoed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call for tougher policing of Wall Street and a higher minimum wage, though not his more sweeping proposals for a single-payer health system, breaking up the largest banks and tuition-free public colleges.
Like past front-runners, she has consistently avoided citing other candidates by name, reflecting her confidence she will be the Democratic nominee despite signs Sanders could pose a threat in the kickoff Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
When candidate debates start in October, she'll presumably engage more directly with her Democratic rivals, who also include former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. James Webb and former Rhode Island Sen. and Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
But she maintained her current approach in the first all-candidate event, last Friday night’s Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner.
The Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs credited Clinton with “the most impressive speech,” but said Sanders “generated big passion” despite a “clunkier” speech and cited O'Malley for “surprising some of the audience with his performance.”
Their comments provided a possible debate preview: Sanders called for a “political revolution,” and O'Malley matched his call for higher Social Security benefits and expanded government regulation, while Clinton combined populist rhetoric with more moderate proposals.
For now, Clinton can continue to set her own pace. But she faces continuing distractions, ranging from the latest Republican-generated congressional probe of her role in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack to polls like three this week in swing states showing potential weaknesses in her public standing.
Meanwhile, she needs to avoid self-induced blunders like the moving rope line with which campaign aides curbed press access at a New Hampshire parade or an apparent directive to her Iowa demonstrators who told the Register they “weren’t allowed” to talk to reporters.
Ultimately, only electoral successes next year can temper those problems — or prove them irrelevant.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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