Sooner or later, a Democratic presidential contender is going to be critical of Hillary Clinton. It has happened before and it will happen again.
Already, a few people openly mulling challenges to the presumed frontrunner have issued shots across the Clinton bow. Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has openly theorized that Hillary could “shift hard right” after her election. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said frankly, “No, I don’t think so” when asked if Hillary was the right leader for the political revolution that he believes is needed.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: Vice President Joe Biden, the man who would in any other cycle be heir apparent. Aside from the occasional assertion that he is “uniquely qualified” to be president and that Hillary’s decision to run or not will not affect his own, Biden has remained quiet while the infrastructure for a Hillary candidacy was built. That infrastructure has included significant support from the Obama veterans who otherwise might have been prepping Biden’s own run.
That’s why heads turned this weekend when Biden reportedly “struck” several attendees at a closed-door fundraiser (in early primary state South Carolina, no less) with comments that seemed critical of the first Clinton presidency.
During a speech described as “populist,” Biden placed the beginning of the middle class’s insecurity in the “later years of the Clinton administration,” CNN reported, citing anonymous sources. They apparently found it hard to view the comments through anything but a 2016 lens.
It’s possible that Biden was simply making a factual statement, no offense intended, and sources laying the groundwork for a Clinton candidacy seemed a little unsure what to make of his comments without further context that the CNN report did not provide.
But it served as a useful reminder that a Hillary campaign — or its current shadow, until she makes an announcement — will eventually have to contend with some criticism from within her own party. Hillary might be a lock for the nomination if she runs, but, unless she defies all historical precedent in modern politics, she won’t be entirely unopposed.
So what’s the strategy?
Most within the budding Hillary 2016 infrastructure would advise remaining positive and avoiding getting drawn into any intra-party disputes that might arise before Hillary launches her candidacy. The Ready for Hillary super PAC has pledged to be “100 percent positive” in its own activities. Correct The Record, the rapid response group founded to combat conservative attacks, would be the most logical entity to counter, based on the division of labor.
But asked by TPM about Biden’s comments — and any potential future attacks from Democratic insurgents — Correct The Record demurred. They are focused on protecting Democrats from Republicans.
“Our mission at Correct The Record is to defend potential Democratic
presidential candidates from baseless right-wing attacks,” Adrienne Watson, deputy communications director, said in an emailed statement. “We utilize research and rapid response to ensure a Democratic president is elected in 2016.”
“There isn’t any concern on a primary and engaging in the back and forth wouldn’t be a good tact as it will probably encourage potential opponents to be a pain for a longer amount of time,” one source close to the Hillary infrastructure told TPM. “And way down the road, it could piss potential donors and supporters off that we are eating our own.”
That’s the right play, an outside Democratic strategist said. With Hillary as presumptive a candidate as any non-incumbent has ever been, there isn’t any upside in feuding with other potential contenders for now. It’s also a reflection of her unique frontrunner status that comments as tepid as Biden’s are arguably as confrontational as the early 2016 Democratic jockeying has seen.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense. You don’t swing down,” Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist with presidential experience, told TPM. “You certainly don’t swing down as far as she’d have to swing down to hit anybody.”