'Hard Choices' Tour Put Spotlight On Clinton's Strengths, Weaknesses

Jul 30, 2014
Originally published on August 2, 2014 3:26 pm

Hillary Clinton's book tour is over. Although it wasn't a campaign rollout, it did offer a peek at the strengths and weaknesses of a possible Clinton candidacy.

One thing was clear: The former first lady, senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state may be readier to be president than to run for president.

She was surprisingly unprepared to talk about her wealth. Her "dead broke" comment on ABC showed a real defensiveness about the debt-to-riches trajectory of her family after she and Bill left the White House — not to mention the $12 million she's made in six-figure speaking fees since she left the State Department a year and a half ago. We weren't "truly well off," she said. "It was not easy" to raise money for "mortgages for houses." It's never a good thing when a politician talks about houses, plural. Remember when John McCain couldn't remember how many houses he owned?

It's not clear whether this will be a long-term problem. Clinton managed, eventually, to pivot to talking about the good fortune she and Bill have had compared to the lack of opportunity for ordinary people. But the "out of touch" meme has been launched: The RNC started a website called poorhillaryclinton.com.

Another lesson from the tour: Clinton will have to get used to the brave new world of the relentless and instantaneous media cycle and a press corps less deferential — and substantive — than the state department correspondents.

She will be covered like no other candidate — certainly not in the same way Republican hopefuls Marco Rubio, Rand Paul or even Jeb Bush will be covered. Hillary Clinton is the most prominent female politician in America, and the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

And let's face it, she's a Clinton. She won't have a chance to quietly test out sound bites or ideas in early campaign stops in Des Moines, Iowa, or Manchester, N.H., in front of small groups of reporters: Everything she does and says will be covered and dissected as national news.

The tour didn't hurt her poll numbers, and her book is still in the top ten on the New York Times best-seller list. It also put to rest questions about her health and stamina — she showed no signs of the "traumatic brain injury" Karl Rove suggested she's suffered. And the issue of Benghazi, while not gone completely, seems to have receded a bit.

But she still hasn't come up with an answer to the most important question for any campaign: Why her?

She's trying. She told Charlie Rose, "What you need if you're going to run for president is to be absolutely clear about what you will do and to make the case relentlessly about that."

There are the green shoots of a big idea. There's the title of the book itself — Hard Choices — intended to frame her leadership style as tough, ready and competent. (A subtle rebuke or contrast, perhaps, to the man she hopes to succeed?)

And she said that she plans to run a "specific" campaign about economic growth and inequality — a sign she intends to bridge the left-center divide in her party on these issues.

After all of this, it's probably a good idea that Clinton is going on vacation. She'll be back in public in the late fall when she campaigns for Democratic Senate candidates, then she'll have just a few months to make a decision and put together the structure of a presidential campaign. While there once was a spirited debate about whether she would or wouldn't run, there's now a consensus, which the book tour only cemented — Hillary Clinton is running for president.

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Hillary Clinton's highly publicized book tour is over and her final decision on whether to run for president in 2016 is likely still months away. But the book tour offered some insights into the strengths and weaknesses of a potential Clinton candidacy. Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There were plenty of positives that came out of Hillary Clinton's book tour - the adoring crowd snaking around the block for a signed copy. The friendly interviews where she could joke about her possible future plans, confessing to Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" that she does prefer an office in her own home.


JON STEWART: Do you have a favorite shape for that home office?


STEWART: Do you like that office - let's say, would you like that office - would you like to have corners or would you like it to not have corners? I don't know.


HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I think that the world is so complicated, the fewer corners that you can have the better.


LIASSON: But there were also some revealing flubs, like when she described her and her husband as not being quote, "truly well-off" and when she said this on ABC.


CLINTON: We came out of the White House not only that dead broke but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses.

LIASSON: It's generally not a good idea to talk about how hard it is to afford your houses, plural. Missteps like these left Clinton's opponents feeling validated. She looked rusty, they said, and out of touch. The RNC started a website called poorhillaryclinton.com, calling attention to the $12 million she's made in speaking fees since she's left the State Department over a year and a half ago.

BRUCE HAYNES: The idea of President Hillary Clinton has always been incredibly powerful. And the reality of candidate Hillary Clinton has always stood in the way.

LIASSON: Bruce Haynes is a Republican strategist.

HAYNES: It's possible that she's grown as a stateswoman, but she hasn't grown as a candidate. I think the impression that she left us with from the book tour is that she's even more defensive as a person in a world that is insisting on increased openness, transparency and honesty.

DONNA BRAZILE: It was a book tour, not a campaign launch.

LIASSON: That's Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, a Clinton loyalist but, like many Democrats, a little surprised Clinton didn't have a readier answer to the questions about her newfound wealth.

BRAZILE: I guess I learned that she's quite uncomfortable talking about her wealth, her success, the fact that she's worked hard to earn the resources that she's been able to garner. She was unable to pivot until, you know - it took her a few tries.

LIASSON: Eventually, she did pivot to where Brazile and others thought she needed to be - talking about the lack of opportunity for others. Five weeks after her dead broke comments, she had the revamped answer down packed for Jon Stewart.


CLINTON: That was an artful use of words, obviously.


CLINTON: You know, Bill and I have worked really hard and we've been successful. I'm really grateful for that. But what I worry about, and I talk about this in the book, is - I'm worried that other people, and particularly younger people, are not going to have the same opportunities we did.

LIASSON: Is this a big deal? Probably not in the long run, but the breathless coverage shows that Hillary Clinton will not be treated by the media in the same way as, say, Marco Rubio or Rand Paul because, among other things, she is a Clinton. Democratic strategist Chris Lehane says Hillary Clinton's book tour did accomplish some important things. She put to rest questions about her health and stamina and the Benghazi controversy seemed to recede a bit. Bottom line, says Lehane...

CHRIS LEHANE: She emerges at the end of this book tour as strong as ever and with more people backing her. And looking at data, both with Democratic primary voters but also with the larger electorate, and she is the most popular woman in the country.

LIASSON: But there was something else missing from the book tour that Clinton will need if she runs, a big idea. The answer to why she's the one who can solve the problems ordinary Americans face. On the book tour, she did give a few hints about this. She said if she runs she'll have a quote, "specific campaign about both economic growth and inequality." And the title of her book, "Hard Choices," is meant to frame her leadership style - tough, competent and ready. But the book tour suggests that right now Hillary Clinton is more ready to be president than to run for president. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.