'The Hillary Papers': Is Clinton's past a political danger?

'The Hillary Papers' have been described as portraying a politically unflattering portrait of Mrs. Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate. Now, partisans are divided on whether such bits could damage her image.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in New Orleans, Jan. 27, 2014.

Do "The Hillary Papers” contain damaging revelations or just the same old stuff? That’s a question dividing D.C. partisans in the wake of the publication of a trove of memos and archive material from Diane Blair, a longtime friend of ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's who died in 2000.

Ms. Blair, a political scientist and author, had planned to write a book from the papers. That never happened. Instead, they were deposited at the University of Arkansas. Contents of the papers were first made public late Sunday by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site.

The Free Beacon describes the documents as portraying a politically unflattering portrait of Mrs. Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate. For instance, it leads with a 1992 memo from Bill Clinton’s pollsters that mused about ways to improve the image of his wife.

Voters admired her intelligence, drive, and fortitude, the memo said. But she was off-putting to some, particularly older, male voters.

“What voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary,” the memo said.

Papers published by the Free Beacon also contained notes written by Blair from conversations with Clinton in which the latter said that her husband’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky was a terrible personal failure on his part, but that it had been a mutual affair and that Bill had tried to cut it off, seeing how dangerous it was.

Blair noted that Mrs. Clinton described Ms. Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony tune.”

The political scientist also wrote that Clinton felt “managed competition” health-care reform would not work, while government-run “single payer” health care, and perhaps an expanded Medicare, was the best way to go.

Will these bits damage Clinton’s image on the eve of a 2016 run? On the right-leaning "Hot Air" site, Ed Morrissey writes, “For those looking for nuggets of embarrassment gold from the Clinton Era, this is pay dirt.”

But, he adds, the past is past, and the GOP is better off focusing on Benghazi and more current Clinton material to lower her poll numbers.

“The problem with Hillary isn’t her cut-throated approach to politics. It’s that she’s incompetent,” Mr. Morrissey writes.

Many voters don’t think Clinton incompetent, given her sky-high poll numbers, other pundits point out. And in some ways, her past is her present. If she runs, her extensive résumé would make her unlike any previous presidential contender. She can’t wave it away.

In a general election against Clinton, a Republican nominee would almost certainly argue that he or she represents the future, and Clinton the past, writes Washington Post political expert Chris Cillizza in "The Fix." The publication of "The Hillary Papers” only highlights how the GOP could use this to depict her in a negative way.

“The biggest hurdle for Hillary Clinton as she contemplates another White House bid in 2016 can be effectively summed up by Timon, the meerkat from ‘The Lion King’: ‘You’ve got to put the past behind you,’ ” Mr. Cillizza writes.

That said, there is actually little evidence that voters get tired of presidential candidates who have been public figures for decades. “Clinton fatigue” may strike mostly those voters who were against them from Bill’s first day in the White House.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, which was 30 years after he began making political speeches, writes University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket at the "Mischiefs of Faction" political science blog.

Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory in 1964, which was 28 years after he entered the public eye as a member of Congress, later becoming a senator and vice president.

Bob Dole and Walter Mondale both won major-party presidential nominations after decades of political service.

 “[A]ssuming [Clinton] wants and gets the Democratic nomination for 2016, she will be subject to the same forces that have determined the successes and failures of previous party nominees: prosperity, peace, moderation, and, to a lesser extent, her skills as a campaigner relative to her opponent’s. Those, and not her freshness, will determine that election’s outcome,” Mr. Masket writes.

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