Hillary Rodham Clinton brings a quarter-century of public service to her potential presidential campaign, but it’s her most recent job as secretary of state for President Obama — overseeing relations with Russia, handling the terrorist attack in Benghazi and negotiating over the war on terrorism — that could come back to haunt her.
Many of Mr. Obama’s current political problems also could affect Mrs. Clinton, including the handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the decision not to slap the terrorist label on Boko Haram, a group responsible for kidnapping hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls last month.
Even the Keystone XL pipeline, which Mr. Obama has been reluctant to greenlight, went through Mrs. Clinton’s department, which delayed the project.
“I’m sure she’s going to go on bragging about her time in the State Department. She’s also going to have to be held accountable for its failures, whether it’s the failed reset with Russia or the failure in Benghazi that actually cost lives,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and potential presidential candidate, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I don’t think she has a passing grade. If she is going to run on her record as secretary of state, she’s also going to have to answer for its massive failures,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, who are building a fundraising and grass-roots organizing machine in anticipation of a White House run, dispute the notion that a campaign would center on her actions of the past, not on her ideas for the future.
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“If she chooses to run for president, she will run a campaign that is about the future and how to continue to make lives better for all Americans,” said Adrienne Elrod, communications director at Correct the Record, an arm of the liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century that responds to conservative attacks on Democratic candidates.
Confronting the past
While Mrs. Clinton puts off a decision on whether to run, she leaves the public discussion to her allies and opponents, and that means a heavy focus on her past.
Some questions go back decades.
Last week, after former White House intern Monica Lewinsky spoke out in Vanity Fair magazine about her relationship with President Clinton, some conservative pundits wondered aloud whether Mrs. Clinton orchestrated the story for her own political benefit.
Getting Ms. Lewinsky’s story out now, rather than during the presidential primary season, could keep the campaign focus on Mrs. Clinton’s policy proposals and qualifications, not her husband’s infidelity, some theorized.
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“I really wonder if this isn’t an effort on the Clintons’ part to get that story out of the way,” Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, said during an interview on Fox News.
The former first lady’s age, 69, also has come into question.
Republican strategist Karl Rove has hinted that Mrs. Clinton’s hospitalization last year may have been more serious than she let on. The New York Post quoted Mr. Rove last week questioning whether Mrs. Clinton had a “traumatic brain injury” stemming from a fall in late 2012. The injury delayed the secretary of state’s testimony to Congress on the assault in Benghazi, Libya.
Mr. Rove then seemed to temper his remarks by suggesting he meant only that Mrs. Clinton’s age may become an issue in a presidential campaign, just as it did for Ronald Reagan and others.
The Clinton camp accused Mr. Rove of trying politicize the injury.
“From the moment this happened 17 months ago, the right has politicized her health,” said Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton. “First they accused her of faking it. Now they’ve resorted to the other extreme — and are flat-out lying. All [Mr. Rove] wants to do is inject the issue into the echo chamber, and he’s succeeding.”
Most of the recent questions have centered on Mrs. Clinton’s time in the State Department, where she largely was out of the limelight of the political press.
The House last week voted to establish a select investigative committee to look deeper into the deadly assault in Benghazi, arguing that too many questions remain unanswered. Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, was named as chairman.
Democrats fear the panel will be used to keep pressure on Mrs. Clinton for months to come.
Mrs. Clinton has called the select committee an unnecessary use of time and resources.
Her husband rushed to her defense Wednesday.
“In my opinion, Hillary did what she should have done” in response to the Benghazi assault, Mr. Clinton said.
The Benghazi issue has simmered for nearly two years, but another ghost from Mrs. Clinton’s past at the State Department has emerged in the past few days.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh and other conservative pundits have criticized Mrs. Clinton for declining to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist group during her time at the State Department.
The organization has sparked worldwide outrage by kidnapping hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls and bragging about plans to sell them into slavery.
Mrs. Clinton’s successor, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, labeled Boko Haram a terrorist group less than a year into his term.
The issue has raised questions about Mrs. Clinton’s leadership and sparked theories about political motivation.
“The Boko Haram leader, or whoever Boko Haram had perform on video, is a good-looking guy. This is why Mrs. Clinton wouldn’t call this terror group a terror group, because they’re black,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his radio show Monday, according to a transcript. “Can’t afford to do this. This is how surface-conscious the left is.”
The Obama factor
Political analysts say most voters already have formed opinions about Mrs. Clinton from her eight years as first lady, eight years as U.S. senator from New York and four years as secretary of state.
Still, Mrs. Clinton’s unbreakable ties to Mr. Obama could be the deciding factor on how some Americans cast ballots.
“A lot depends not on Clinton herself but on Barack Obama and how much she will feel the need to escape Barack Obama’s shadow in 2016,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire who tracks presidential politics. “Perhaps the answer will be she will need to do that, and perhaps her own high public profile will come in handy. Maybe she’ll see ample reason to not run for Barack Obama’s third term.”
Analysts say Mrs. Clinton would have a difficult challenge if she tries to change minds and win support for ambitious policy proposals. Instead, they say, Americans may decide whether she is presidential material based on what she has and hasn’t done or has and hasn’t said over the past two decades.
“She’s been in the spotlight since 1991 nationally. It will have been 25 years of a very, very public persona. Even if there had been candidates who had been this well-known, in this digital age, with the way the news works now, she’s the focus of so many stories, she’s on so many home pages. It’s impossible not to track her, to follow her,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University in Washington.
Ms. Lawless said that presents both challenges and advantages.
“She faces a difficult set of circumstances in that people already have pretty strong feelings about her. But the upside of that is the additional stuff that Republicans throw at the wall about her likely won’t have a big impact either,” she said.
“If people’s predispositions are so formed, the campaign will matter a little bit. But there’s not going to be a lot of new information that people factor into their assessments.”
Other analysts say some voters may ignore Mrs. Clinton’s past altogether and give her a chance to lay out her vision for the future.
“I think they would be open to a Clinton candidacy. I think she’s lost some of her polarizing edge, though I’m sure some of that is going to come back,” Mr. Scala said. “At this point, I think they’re at least willing to listen to what she has to say.”