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John Dickerson: Hillary Clinton and the hard question

  • Slate
  • Published Friday, April 11, 2014, at 12 a.m.

Hillary Clinton has answered a question about her presidential journey again. During an interview as a part of an appearance at a marketing conference, the former secretary of state said: “I am thinking about it, but I am going to continue to think about it for a while.… The hard questions are not do you want to be president, or can you win. The hard questions are why. Why would you want to do this and what can you offer that could make a difference.”

Clinton has said she is thinking about it before – in her Barbara Walters interview and her New York magazine interview. Still, the fact that she said she was thinking about a campaign generated news and interest as it apparently must by order of proclamation. Four thousand shares on Mashable’s piece alone.

If everyone is going to launch into a dervish of speculation every time Clinton speaks on this issue, we’re going to have to pick up our game. It wasn’t that Clinton was considering a candidacy that was notable, it was the part that came afterward that was interesting.

If you strain your ears, you can hear a tiny shift in what Clinton is saying when she talks about “why” she is running.

Though she isn’t even close to declaring her candidacy, the Clinton 2016 campaign is already coming under fire for lacking vision. If she rebutted the charge that the campaign she hasn’t announced lacks a theme, that would be effectively announcing the campaign, so that’s not going to happen. But there is a way to get at this issue. That’s a little bit of what Clinton is doing here.

No candidate wants to fail the question Roger Mudd famously put to Ted Kennedy in 1979. Mudd asked why Kennedy was running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, and the senator didn’t have much of an answer. (It was a tap-dance routine that lacked only a hat and cane.)

This interview fed the belief that Kennedy was just going through the motions because he was a Kennedy and didn’t have a real vision for himself or the country. Clinton faces the same problem Kennedy did. As with the son of the famous political family, there is so much noise that attends her presidential ambitions, whether it’s talk of her husband, her gender, or her age and health, it’s hard for a voter to hear a message even if there is one.

Clinton must prove that she is not just running because it’s her turn or because she’s popular, but because she actually wants to do something. Clinton says that’s what she’s pondering now. If she can focus everyone on why she might run during this crazy speculative period, they might focus a little more closely on her explanation to that specific question. If she does decide to run, the purpose of her candidacy may not get lost in the circus of the announcement.

If Clinton is being honest, and this is the only question she is considering, imagine the box that puts her in if she doesn’t run. “I’ve decided I can’t make a difference.” That seems an unlikely outcome of this period of great pondering. So that means the bidding is open to come up with an answer to the “why question.”

The target answer presumably would be something that hinted at the prosperity of her husband’s years but was also forward-looking, rebutting the idea that she’s a candidate of the past. It would simultaneously flick at the historic nature of having a woman in the White House while not leaning too heavily on her sex. Oh, and the answer needs to be short enough to fit into Twitter’s 140-character limit and leave room for the #Hillary2016 hashtag.

Clinton says she’s not going to announce until some time next year. Answering the “why question” will give her plenty to think about.

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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