Is Hillary Clinton a bad campaigner (or just working out the kinks)?

The Hillary Clinton wealth flap is still going strong, and some pundits are wondering if she is simply a bad campaigner. Others note that now is the right time to make mistakes.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to gathered participants at the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative America, at the Sheraton Downtown, in Denver, Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

The Hillary Clinton wealth flap is still going strong. But this week it’s changed from discussion about whether Clinton’s claims of relative poverty are maladroit – many pundits agree she could have handled the issue better – to whether they reflect a larger problem.

Here’s the issue: is Hillary Clinton, possible 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee, just not a good campaigner?

Otherwise why would she claim to have been “dead broke” after leaving the White House, with the prospect of rich speakers’ fees looming before both her and her ex-president husband? And, by subsequently saying “we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off,” why would she compound the matter?

She said this while on tour for a book she received a reported $14 million to write, remember. That’s caused many conservatives, and some liberals, to start questioning her political skills.

“Her recent tone-deaf answers on questions about wealth speak to the fact that she’s a lot more politically clumsy than people assume,” writes Philip Klein at the right-leaning Washington Examiner.

After all, Bill Clinton may have been a great campaigner back in the day, but that doesn’t mean his wife is too. To a certain extent his ease on the stump will be a benchmark she will inevitably fail to reach.

Hillary herself, in an interview with the PBS NewsHour that will be broadcast in full on Wednesday night, calls her references to wealth “unartful.”

But Clinton’s defenders point out that she would not have reached the point she has in life without considerable political skills. She blocked out other potential candidates and easily won a Senate seat from New York, for one thing. She built a big lead in the 2008 nomination race, crushing all but one other candidate, only to fall just short of the Democratic Party’s nod. Now she’s built a huge lead for what most consider her inevitable 2016 White House attempt.

“I’d say that she’s been an extremely successful politician so far. Even if she can’t manage to put together a decent answer to the occasional seemingly easy question from the press,” writes political scholar Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg View.

And it’s possible she’s just working out her campaign kinks at the moment. The book tour, in fact, might be designed to do just that. As Ezra Klein points out at Vox, her gaffes are well-timed. They’re like bad at-bats in spring training, something to be experienced and learned from before the real contests begin.

“Clinton’s string of highly public, vaguely embarrassing interviews speak to one of her real advantages: she can spend the next two years relearning how to run a national campaign. Her competitors can’t,” Klein writes.

And here’s our bottom line: there are numbers that will matter a lot to any Clinton campaign, but they won’t be the ones on her tax disclosure forms. They will be the GDP figures, each quarter, over the next two years. Wednesday’s shocking news that the first quarter 2014 GDP declined 2.9 percent shows that the US just can’t move into second gear to recover from the Great Recession.

That will drag down President Obama’s approval rating and make Americans much less likely to give Democrats continued control of the White House. Back in 1992 it was Clinton political consultant James Carville who coined “It’s the economy, stupid” as a campaign mantra. That’s as true today as it was then.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.