Hillary Clinton 2014: Campaigning without campaigning?

Anita Kumar

She’s endorsed same-sex marriage. She’s lamented a Supreme Court decision that she warns will limit minority voting. She’s urged Congress to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

And she’s derided the “sorry state of our own politics,” blaming the partisan gridlock in Washington for deep automatic spending cuts, a 16-day government shutdown and a near-miss on debt default.

Since stepping down as the nation’s top diplomat last year, Hillary Clinton has embarked on a frenetic cross-country tour, speaking to massive crowds on a series of issues that could put her in a better position if she decides to run for president.

“By talking about those issues, she is . . . inserting herself in the conversation,” said Maria Cardona, a former Clinton spokeswoman in 2008 who now works at Dewey Square Group, a public affairs firm.

Clinton has shied away from more contentious issues, such as Social Security benefits and Iran’s nuclear program. That strategy has prompted some to chide her for “hiding” from the issues.

“The Democrats’ 2016 front-runner is in hiding,” America Rising, a conservative opposition research group, wrote in November. “That demonstrates just how weak her party’s current political position is and underscores that Hillary, more than anything, is a political animal.”

Still, Clinton’s strategy is designed to let her re-enter the political debate on her own terms after four years at the State Department, when the secretary of state was largely precluded from talking freely about domestic policies.

“It seems to me these things she has chosen to speak out on are aimed at making sure her name stays out there,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a South Carolina legislator who’s a member of the Democratic National Committee.

After nearly a year out of office, Clinton can check many topics off her to-do list, the same topics that might help her solidify and build on the coalition of young voters, minorities and gays and lesbians that Barack Obama amassed to defeat her for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

The new federal health care law. Check. Trayvon Martin, the black teen killed by a gunman in Florida. Check. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Check

“Everything she is doing is putting her in a stronger position to run,” said Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic pollster.

Clinton, 66, said recently that she hadn’t made up her mind about running. She expects to decide later this year.

“It’s such a difficult decision, and it’s one that I’m not going to rush into . . . and I don’t think we should be looking at the next election,” Clinton said in an interview late last year for the ABC News special “Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2013.”

“We should be looking at the work that we have today. Our unemployment rate is too high. We have people getting kicked off food stamps who are in terrible economic straits. Small business is not getting credit. I could go on and on, so I think we ought to pay attention to what’s happening right now.”

The former first lady, U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state is already the presumed front-runner for her party’s nomination in 2016. And she’s widely expected to receive an additional boost of momentum from those looking to elect the nation’s first female president.

EMILY’s List, which helps elects Democratic women who support abortion rights, launched an effort called Madam President last year to help propel a woman into the White House. The campaign isn’t about Clinton but the group doesn’t seem to mind too much when people see her in the role. “We really would love to see Hillary Clinton run for president,” said the group’s president, Stephanie Schriock. “We believe she has the experience, passion, values.”

Clinton dominates the potential field of candidates for her party’s nomination by huge margins, with a more than 5-to-1 advantage over her nearest rival, according to a recent McClatchy-Marist poll. Vice President Joe Biden is weighing a third run for the White House, but so far Clinton has eclipsed him.

She’s received endorsements from Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. She has the backing of a political action committee, Ready for Hillary, which claims to have more than a million supporters lined up, including top Obama campaign adviser Mitch Stewart, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Bill Clinton campaign strategist James Carville. And she already has journalists trailing her around the country as if she were a candidate.

Republicans have been gearing up for a second run for years, attacking her on a slew of policy issues and, most recently, for her role before and after the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including an ambassador.

Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant who worked for 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, said her supporters were trying – but not succeeding – to convince Americans that Clinton had changed since she last ran.

“Everybody sort of talks about the new Hillary,” he said. “But she’s been a part of Democratic politics for last 30 years. . . . The new Hillary is the same as the old Hillary.”

Last February, a visibly exhausted Clinton left the State Department after traveling to 112 countries in four years. She said she planned to spend time with family and friends, watch home design shows and write a memoir.

However, she soon joined the speaking circuit and launched a series of campaigns on public policy issues.

Clinton, some say, is campaigning without campaigning.

“If she had no thought about running for president, I think she would be doing many of the same things she is doing now,” said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who’s close to the Clintons. “But what she’s doing is clearly not hurting her chances if she runs.”

In addition to a flurry of speeches, Clinton has launched campaigns to boost early childhood education, increase opportunities for women and girls and protect wild elephants from poaching through the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation, the nonprofit group established by her husband but recently renamed to represent the couple and their daughter.

And she’s campaigned for successful Democratic candidates – such as the newly sworn-in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and longtime friend Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race – building up a reservoir of good will in the party.

Though Clinton’s schedule isn’t public and many of her events are closed, some groups have publicized her appearances to sell tickets or garner publicity.

She signed on with the Harry Walker Agency, reportedly earning $200,000 per speech, mostly in front of business-friendly groups such as trade associations or lobbying organizations. She’s delivered unpaid speeches on issues at universities, a women’s institute, the nation’s oldest black women’s sorority and an organization that helps people with HIV and AIDS.

“Even after a long decade of war and financial crisis, America is still the indispensable nation,” she told a crowd at Colgate University in October.

Despite the diversity of her topics, some liberal groups are calling on Clinton – as well as other potential Democratic candidates – to speak about other issues.

Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said his members were anxious to hear where Clinton stands on the issue of the day, economic populism, including expanding Social Security benefits and standing up to Wall Street, saying that many of her positions are “frozen in time, in the years 2007-2008.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, launched a petition last year that urges Clinton to “publicly endorse” the deal by the United States and five other world powers that calls for Iran to limit its nuclear program in exchange for lighter economic sanctions.

“There’s very much a focus on policies and not personalities,” said Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn.org’s political action committee.

Kathy Sullivan, a Democratic activist who was a Clinton co-chair in New Hampshire in 2008, dismisses any pressure that Clinton faces from the groups. “There’s always a segment that is never satisfied with the favorite candidate, always looking for something else,” she said.

By Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau