As Hillary Clinton suggested during her first presidential campaign, in response to questions about why she hadn’t yet gotten out of a primary race she wasn’t going to win, people do die.
“We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,’’ she told the editorial board of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader on May 23, 2008. The comment infuriated not just Obama aides, but then-still uncommitted Democrats like Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who called it “beyond the pale.” All she meant to say, she later insisted, is that presidential primaries frequently extend into the summer.
Whatever her intention, nobody could doubt that in politics, the unexpected happens all the time. And a disaster doesn’t have to be fatal to scramble a race: In 1972, Ed Muskie was the Democratic frontrunner until he reportedly cried in response to press attacks on him and his wife—during a snowstorm that may or may not have actually accounted for those drops running down his face. Gary Hart was the most likely ’88 nominee before the country saw the photographic evidence of his trip to Bimini with a young model.
This week’s controversy over the news that Hillary Clinton conducted government business entirely on a personal e-mail system that seems to have given her the ability to erase messages completely throughout her four years as secretary of state isn’t anything approaching that kind of a meltdown. Nor are recent revelations about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation.
But what is the confidence level now among Democrats about Hillary Clinton’s fully expected but not yet official presidential campaign? And how worried are they about the lack of a Plan B?
Most remain convinced she’s either the best or the only alternative to any Republican nominee. And yet, yes, some cop to being a little bit nervous.
“My comfort level is not very high,’’ said Frank Loy, who served as under secretary of state for global affairs during the Clinton administration and was the chief U.S. negotiator on climate change. “I think a) she will run, b) she will be a pretty good candidate, and c) she has a good chance of winning. But having said that, I don’t think it’s prudent to have all our eggs in one basket, both for real reasons and because it looks like we have absolutely no bench.”
Loy raised money for Obama the last two cycles, but doesn’t expect to get involved in the presidential race at all in ’16: “She doesn’t need me,’’ he said. “And I bet I’m not the only one feeling like that; they have so many chits to call in.’’ Even if, he added, “they’ll have a harder time with the little donors who in the aggregate were very important to Obama.’’
Meanwhile, he hopes for Candidate Clinton’s sake that the stories about the e-mails result in some pink slips in Hillaryland: “Somebody’s head ought to roll that nobody said, ‘This is a really dumb thing to do.’ Is it fatal? No. But hurtful, yes; we don’t need stuff like that.”
The activist documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, whose recent work includes Koch Brothers Exposed and War on Whistleblowers, said he’s uneasy about the prospect of a one-person primary—but joked that that’s not exactly out of character for him: “Being a nervous and neurotic person of the Jewish faith from New York City, I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket for anything.”
So what do the Democrats he talks to think about the e-mails, and the race in general? “I don’t talk to anybody any more—but the people I e-mail or text or am on listservs with” are mostly wondering where she is on important issues, like “inequality, and how we increase security without occupying every country in the world.”
As for her private e-mails, he said, “I certainly have heard, ‘Why did staff members not anticipate this and get out in front of it?’”
Among professional Democrats, there’s little to no discernable angst. Congressional aides tend to see the e-mail issue as an odd and unforced error, but not one she won’t recover from. And they are definitely not worried that as the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was unfolding, anyone on Clinton’s team was daft enough to think, hey, let’s start an e-mail chain on this.
“I haven’t given it much thought,’’ George Soros’ spokesman, Michael Vachon, said of the story’s potential resonance with donors. Andy Spahn, who connects Hollywood donors with Democratic candidates, described the matter as a “non-issue” and “media obsession.”
Chris Lehane, a California-based campaign consultant and crisis manager who worked for the Clinton White House, essentially argued that Hillary Clinton is less vulnerable to scandals because she’s been through so many of them already: As a long-time target of Republican attacks, he said, “she is a fully formed candidate in a way others aren’t.” One way or the other, in other words, people have long since made up their minds about her. And the idea that anything at all could knock her out of the race is in his view “in the far-fetched hypothetical world.”
The strategist and party vice chair Donna Brazile says she’s “combat-ready” for attacks on Clinton—and suggests, too, that those attacks have gone on so long that their impact has been muted: “I’m almost immune; most Democrats are immune.” So no, her fellow Democrats aren’t looking for a Plan B, C or D: “If there’s a campaign to find an alternative, it hasn’t reached my inbox.”
In fact, instead of worrying whether the Democrats might be wrong to be too singularly focused on Clinton, she thinks it’s the Republicans who are guilty of that, though in the end, “the only person who can damage her brand is her—like when she came out with her book” and talked about having been “dead broke” when she and her husband left the White House. “It was her own words that Republicans and others used against her.”
Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under Bill Clinton and has known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, isn’t quite that untroubled. He sees a “split in the ranks” over whether the prospect of a one-person primary is an unalloyed blessing or a curse in disguise.
Among those who see it as the latter, some feel that’s because Hillary Clinton would be improved as a candidate by some serious competition, while for others the thinking is that in the “unlikely event she imploded,” the lack of a ready back-up would have damaged the party’s chances of retaining the White House.
“The probability of her imploding because of some revelation is miniscule,” Reich said, because Clinton, 67, has been in public life so long. Still, he said, “I have a small but vague concern about someone who’s in his or her late 60s—as one always does—there’s always a small probability of a health problem. Does that loom large for me? No. But I always think it’s useful for a party to have a strong second tier, and I don’t think there is a strong second tier”—or even, with the possible exception of Joe Biden, someone who could give her enough of a race to really improve her as a candidate. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders are among those still mulling runs; O'Malley is visiting New Hampshire on Friday.
The more urgent drumbeat he hears every day, he says, is the charge from Democrats that “she’s part of the moneyed establishment.” And? “I understand where the concern comes from, but that sells her short; she’s terribly concerned” about income inequality and the imbalance of power that lies behind it. Still, Reich knows that “she has not been tested on these terms,” or begun to explain how she’d “unrig” the system.
And the sooner she starts to do that, the better, her supporters feel. Paula Hughes, a Democratic donor who knocked on doors for Obama, sometimes along with her two daughters who worked for his campaign, is all-in for Hillary this time around, but “I hope she does announce soon, because we’re having this conversation without her.” “Stop being coy and get out there,” she’d like to tell her candidate, “because we want you to defend yourself in these cases.”
Jennifer Epstein and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this report.