WASHINGTON – See Hillary ride in a van! Watch her meet everyday Americans! Witness her ordering a burrito bowl at Chipotle! Which she did wearing shades, as did her chief aide Huma Abedin, yielding security-camera pictures that made them look (to borrow from Karl Rove) like fugitives on the lam, wanted in seven states for a failed foreign policy.
There’s something surreal about Hillary Clinton’s Marie Antoinette tour, sampling cake and commoners. But what else can she do? After Barack Obama, she’s the best known political figure in America. She has papal name recognition. Like Napoleon and Cher, she’s universally known by her first name. As former queen consort, senator and secretary of state, she has spent a quarter-century in the national spotlight – more than any modern candidate.
She doesn’t just get media coverage; she gets meta-coverage. The staging is so obvious that actual events disappear. The story is their symbolism – campaign as semiotics.
This quality of purposeful abstractness makes everything sound and seem contrived. It’s not really her fault. True, she’s got enough genuine inauthenticity to go around – decades of positioning, framing, parsing, dodging – but the perception is compounded by the obvious staginess of the gigantic political apparatus that surrounds her and directs her movements.
Why is she running in the first place? Because it’s the next inevitable step in her career path. But that’s not as damning as it seems. It can be said of practically every presidential candidate. The number of conviction politicians – those who run not to be someone but to do something – is exceedingly small. In our lifetime: Ronald Reagan. And arguably, Barack Obama, although with him (as opposed to Reagan) a heavy dose of narcissistic self-fulfillment is admixed with genuine ideological conviction.
Hillary Clinton’s problem is age, not chronological but political. She’s been around for so long that who can really believe she suddenly has been seized with a new passion to champion, as she put it in Iowa, “the truckers that I saw on I-80 as I was driving here”?
Or developed a new persona. She will, of course, go through the motions. Her team will produce a “message,” one of the most corrosive, debased words in the lexicon of contemporary politics – an alleged synonym for belief or conviction, it signifies nothing more than a branded, marketing strategy.
She will develop policies. In Iowa, she’d already delivered her top four, one of which is to take unaccountable big money out of politics. This is rather precious, considering that her supporters intend to raise $2.5 billion for 2016 alone and that the Clinton Foundation is one of the most formidable machines ever devised for extracting money from the rich, the powerful and the unsavory.
She will try to sell herself as champion of the little guy. Not easy to do when you and your husband have for the last 25 years made limo-liberal Davos-world your home. Hence the van trek to Iowa, lest a Gulfstream 450 invade the visual.
Clinton’s unchangeability, however, is the source of her uniqueness as a candidate: She’s a fixed point. She is who she is. And no one expects – nor would anyone really believe – any claimed character change.
Accordingly, voters’ views about her are equally immutable. The only variable, therefore, in the 2016 election lies on the other side, where the freedom of action is almost total. It all depends on who the Republicans pick and how the candidate performs.
Hillary is a stationary target. You know what you’re getting. She has her weaknesses: She’s not a great campaigner, she has that unshakable inauthenticity problem and, regarding the quality most important to getting elected, she is barely, in the merciless phrase of candidate Obama in 2008, “likable enough.”
But she has her strengths: discipline, determination, high intelligence, great energy. With an immense organization deploying an obscene amount of money. And behind that, a Democratic Party united if not overly enthusiastic.
That’s why 2016 is already shaping up as the most unusual open-seat presidential race in our time: one candidate fixed and foregone, the other yet to emerge from a wild race of a near-dozen contenders with none exceeding 20 percent.
So brace yourself for a glorious Republican punch-up, punctuated by endless meta-coverage of the Democrats’ coronation march. After which, we shall decide the future of our country. Just the way the Founders drew it up.
Charles Krauthammer’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.