Hillary Clinton ‘Unrunning’ For President

The press corps is already bored.

Jack Shafer‘s “Hillary Clinton Can’t Run for President” is an interesting take on the strange relationship between candidates and the press corps.

If the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination were a Little League baseball game, the party would have already recognized Clinton’s insurmountable lead and invoked the mercy rule to give the victory to her. By unrunning, she avoids the intense political debate that would only call attention to her underfunded, unannounced and relatively unknown rivals, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee and Joe Biden, all of whom are un-unrunning at various paces.

With nine months until the first presidential primary, Clinton can’t afford to actively run for president. Indeed, if she had her druthers, she probably wouldn’t even be unrunning now. She was pressured by the constant press attention about when she was going to announce and the email controversy. That sort of press attention was positive media attention she couldn’t control, and only by announcing could she dial it down. The email controversy was negative media attention she couldn’t control without the attention-deflecting machinery of a campaign. Indeed, she may be the first politician to announce for the presidency in order to decrease attention in her candidacy.

She’s succeeded wildly. Her coffees, roundtables, discussions and “spontaneous” meetings with voters have immersed her campaign into a box of dry ice and slowed it to the lowest metabolic levels. Suspended animation would look vigorous compared to what Clinton is now doing. This is smart. Steady coverage on the inside of newspapers is exactly what she wants. I buy what Team Clinton stalwart Donna Brazile recently told BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer about the campaign’s pacing (“There’s a rhythm. She’s starting off like Beethoven, with melodies and chords that people understand. But she’s got to end up like Beyoncé”) except to my ears early Clinton sounds more like a hobbled version of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” than Beethoven.

Actively running for president at this point would be too politically damaging for Clinton. By actively running, she would have to declare herself for or against the current administration, something she doesn’t want to do until it presents some advantage. By unrunning, she can blend passively into the background, where she can be there but not here. Depending on how suggestible the audience that is listening with her, Clinton unrunning looks like a continuation of the Clinton and Obama legacy without explicitly saying so.


For months, if not years, Clinton has been running for president while denying she was running for president. Now, she’s announced that she’s running for president but not really doing anything different than when she was running for president by not running for president. Which, understandably, is rather annoying for political reporters, who have to file constant stories about the campaign that she’s not running.

So, what’s a reporter to do when a candidate won’t run?

Having gotten what they wished for, an official Clinton candidacy, the press must now cover the Clinton 2016 slow lane the best they can. The press already knows almost everything about her, and she’s not going to voluntarily serve any fresh meat, so reporters and editors will have to go to the freezer and the landfills where her past is stored. That’s one reason behind the press excitement over Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Even if there’s nothing damning in the book, reporters can grind out hundreds of column inches on the subject and make it relevant to the campaign. The only alternative until the campaign awakens from dormancy will be profiles of the 24-year-old staff wizards (I’m sure they exist) who are vitalizing the Clinton campaign. I shudder.

Unless and until a real candidate emerges to put up at least a token challenge to Clinton’s walk to the nomination, I’m not even sure what it is she should be doing that she’s not doing. The burgeoning Republican field have to position themselves against one another while taking shots at Clinton and the Obama presidency. Absent shots that draw blood, there’s no reason for Clinton to shoot back. And it’s way too early for her to draw distinctions between herself and the president she served—especially since his approval numbers are starting to move in the right direction.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    She doesn’t need to a dang thing to damage the eventual GOP nominee except stay out of the way. Republicans and their backers are doing a fine job of that all on their own.

  2. Tillman says:

    You know, I understand the Clinton strategy to ape Obama’s cool (which, on his part, collapses anytime a spokesman has to do some convoluted response to a reporter and &#%$s it up), but I’m still concerned her 90s prism is the view she sees it from. That is, she’s betting on the rot in the Republican Party outpacing its growth. That’s actually a fairly common position around here too in the comments. I just think it’s a bad position to have on one’s electoral opponents.

    Or maybe I’m wrong and this is about as Zen as early presidential campaigns get.

  3. DrDaveT says:

    Why am I having such a hard time working up any empathy at all for the plight of understimulated political reporters?

  4. Nikki says:

    @Tillman: Have you seen who’s running for the GOP presidential nomination?

  5. Scott says:

    If I were Clinton, I would continue doing what she is doing: a low level meet and greet. In fact, my advice would be to go where she is most disliked. A road trip down US 11 from Upstate NY to New Orleans would be a perfect highway to follow.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Very easy to make an unforced error in this kind of gambit.
    Think of the “prevent defense” in football…all it ever does is prevent you from winning.
    Not to be overly dramatic…but the future of the Republic rests on this election. Both Kennedy and Ginsburg can be expected to leave the court in the next 9 years. If Republicans are allowed to appoint another Scalia or Thomas the result will be devastating. Terrible decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon and Hobby Lobby will be the norm, possibly, for well over a decade. You can already see the damage Citizens and McCutcheon are causing today. I f Clinton loses we will become more and more of an oligarchy…where the richest among us exercise their economic power to buy governmental power – the same governmental power that establishes the rules which provides the rich with economic power – with which to buy governmental power.
    Clinton must not fwck this up. And I’m not sure I trust her not to.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Clinton must not fwck this up. And I’m not sure I trust her not to

    As far as I can see, Hillary Clinton has 2 problems: (1) she’s okay but not great on the campaign trail, and (2) people just might be worn out by the whole Clinton/Bush dynasty {{{slash}}} ongoing drama.

    The primary thing, the wild card, that probably throws all of this out the window is the “First Female President” factor. Turnout among conservatives is going to be strong no matter what, however Democrats really need to get out the vote in order to realize the maximum benefits from the demographic shifts that have recently benefitted the Democratic Party.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    When Obama overcame Clinton in the primaries the Clinton supporters came out for Obama. Clinton then joined team Obama and was a valuable member of the Cabinet.
    Obama and Obama supporters absolutely must be willing to enthusiastically do the same.

  9. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @al-Ameda: On the dynasty drama issue, IMHO we are stuck with clowns to the left and jokers to the right because with Jeb as the most likely candidate, we get the same drama from the left of the aisle. Sorry…

  10. Tyrell says:

    @C. Clavin: The problem will be getting a lot of people to be “enthusiastic” and “excited” about Hillary, which would compare to being enthusiastic about fingernail scratching on a chalkboard. I can see where Warren candidacy would catch fire. But I really doubt she would run under any circumstances.

  11. Tillman says:

    @Nikki: Have you seen how Obama lost votes in ’12 compared to ’08 against Mitt Romney, humanity’s closest cousin to the humble robot? Or how the American people have a predilection for switching the party controlling the White House after two terms?

    She has advantages — both Obama and her have been blessed with opponents playing checkers while they play chess — but it is prudent not to take one’s advantages for granted.