Hillary Clinton has been on the national stage for two decades now, and when it comes to her treatment by Republicans, that time can be divided into two distinct periods.
The first ran for 16 years, from early 1992, when her husband survived a wave of scandals and emerged as the Democratic nominee for president, and early 2008, when Hillary fell hopelessly behind Barack Obama in their delegate race. For all of that time, Hillary and Bill were the faces of their party and, consequently, faced a relentless, daily, over-the-top assault from the GOP. The precise nature of the attacks differed, but broadly speaking, the Clintons were treated by the right exactly how Barack Obama has been for the past four years.
Which is no coincidence, because the turning point in the right’s relationship with Bill and Hillary came at the precise moment when it became clear there’d be no Clinton restoration in ’08. Suddenly, there was no day-to-day incentive for conservatives to portray them as The Worst Thing Ever To Happen To American Politics. But there was real incentive for the right to begin giving Obama the Clinton treatment, which it's been doing ever since. In the revised right-wing narrative, Bill and Hillary became symbols of a bygone era of Democratic pragmatism and cooperation – “good” Democrats whose legacy Obama was routinely tarnishing with his radical partisan warfare.
The result was predictable. With Hillary no longer subjected to attacks – and with the right heaping praise on her instead – her poll numbers soared to record heights. Her favorable score has sat close to 70 percent for years now. She and her husband are still among the most prominent public figures in the world, but for the first time since their ’92 breakthrough, they haven’t been confronted with an opposition party intent on seizing every opportunity to tear them down. Bill’s poll numbers are astronomical too.
In the first few years of Obama’s presidency, there was no real consequence to this for the right. But in the past year, the price has become clearer. First, there was the 2012 campaign, in which Bill – capitalizing on the broad popularity and enhanced stature that Republicans helped him attain – played a starring role on Obama’s behalf. And now that the political world is beginning to think about 2016, it’s become apparent that Hillary will be a front-runner like we’ve rarely seen if she joins the race.
So Republicans have a problem. As long as the threat of another Clinton campaign looms, they can’t continue with their hands-off approach. They must find a way to make her a villain all over again, to revert to their 1992-2008 treatment of her – and fast.
This may end up being the real long-term political significance of the scathing Benghazi report that was released yesterday. In the months since the attack, Republicans have largely given the secretary of state a pass, focusing their ire on Susan Rice, who was seen as Clinton’s likely successor in the Cabinet. But now Rice is out of the way, announcing last week that she won’t pursue the State post. So the new report offers the right a perfect pivot point – away from the Rice attacks of the past few months, and the Clinton idolatry of the past few years. Hillary won’t testify before Congress this week because of the concussion she recently suffered, but she’s under pressure to do so in January. Assuming she does then, it will offer an interesting test: Will Republicans start piling on like it’s 1994 again?
The point here isn’t that fallout from the Benghazi report will have much lasting harm on Clinton’s ’16 prospects. For all we know, the issue will barely come up if she ends up running. But this could be another spring ’08 moment, when we witness a dramatic shift in the right’s Clinton narrative almost overnight. If that happens, then Benghazi is just the start, and soon conservatives will be shredding Hillary (and maybe Bill too) on a whole range of topics.
With the GOP again dedicating itself to harming her politically, Clinton’s gaudy poll numbers would probably drop. That alone wouldn’t change her status as the clear favorite for her party’s ’16 nod (if she wants it). But it would offer her a vivid reminder of what it was like to live for 16 years as the preeminent target of the Republican messaging machine. And it might make her ask: Do I really want to live that way again for four – or eight – more years?