Not running over there.

Hillary Clinton's Non-Campaign Strategy

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Are Hillary Clinton’s recent mishaps a predictable consequence of her campaign strategy?

Lynn Vavreck makes the smart point that Clinton’s book tour, which is serving as her de facto public presidential campaign this summer, invites scrutiny about her personal life because she’s not out there proposing a policy platform. And since the press isn’t going to focus on telling her basic life story, as it would with a new candidate, the natural inclination is going to be to pick holes in her presentation of that story.

That’s probably correct in the abstract (though the personal lives of the Clintons are always going to be a tempting news story). So the question is whether the strategy's advantages outweigh the risks.

Of course, Clinton may have decided to run a non-campaign campaign because she’s not certain about whether she wants the job. Or because she only wants the job if she doesn’t have to spend four years actively campaigning for it. If that's the case, she has to accept whatever downside there might be in not campaigning now.

On the other hand, Clinton may be running, but believes that there are some real advantages from postponing the “real” campaign. And, in fact, there are.

One of them has to do with gaming the field. Suppose there are a number of potentially strong candidates who will only run if Clinton doesn’t, and then another group of weaker, but still viable, candidates who would consider taking on Clinton one-on-one but wouldn't enter a crowded field of stronger candidates. The first group will eventually drop out whenever Clinton declares she’s running, so they don’t matter to her. The members of the second group, however, are potentially damaged by delaying the beginning of the campaign, because they’ll wind up entering late while Clinton is already working hard to secure backing from party actors. Indeed, the longer she can wait, the more likely it is that no viable candidate will challenge her.

And there are real advantages to delaying or avoiding position-taking. A candidate forced to take positions on the issues of 2013 or 2014 may find those positions uncomfortable in 2015 and 2016. For some controversial, no-win policies, that may even mean ducking them entirely in 2016 if events allow. And then there are issues where the consensus Democratic position is far from the general-election median; again, waiting makes it more likely that Clinton can avoid taking a position that could be a problem in November 2016.

Looking beyond the campaign, presidents (and all politicians) generally prefer being bound by as few promises as possible, allowing them extra flexibility to react to events as they wish (whether for policy or electoral reasons). The more specific, and the more public, the policy promise, the higher the cost for an elected official to break it. And the longer a candidate is out on the campaign trail, the more (and more specific) promises he or she is bound to make.

Note that most of these reasons why Clinton might want to delay also explain why it is in the interest of the party as a whole for a viable candidate to emerge to challenge her. Fortunately for her, there’s not much reward in running for the nomination and losing, and so far no other candidate appears ready to perform that service for party actors.

My guess is that Clinton sees these advantages as offsetting the downside risk of more media focus on personal foibles. After all, none of the attention appears to be obstructing her path to the nomination, and it will be long forgotten by fall 2016. Except, perhaps, by those who aren’t going to vote for her anyway. So I’m expecting her to attempt to string out this portion of the campaign as long as she can. And that might be quite a bit longer.

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