This Is How The Clinton Campaign Begins

Actually, it's been going on for years.

Let's just get this out of the way now: She's running.

Hillary Clinton, who will be spending Sunday at an Iowa greasefest, has not announced her second candidacy for president. She hasn't, in fact, done much since she left Foggy Bottom; she hasn't done much politics since the Summer of 2008. And so the obsessive observers of her career and of American presidential politics have not had an occasion to declare the obvious. After all, what has changed, other than the passage of time?

But asking what has changed is not quite the right question to ask of a Clinton campaign. That's because campaigning has been the Clintons' default mode since at least the late 1980s. And their campaign by now is not the typical, tiny pre-campaign organization of a married couple and a couple of trusted advisers. It is a vast apparatus of relationships and obligations, promises and chits, that has been moving steadily forward. It began when she stood on a stage with her old rival Barack Obama in a place called Unity, New Hampshire, in June of 2008, and swore her allegiance to the Democratic nominee and, less noticeably, to her own ability to fight another day. This is a road that leads straight to this weekend's stop, Senator Tom Harkin's famous steak fry.

This isn't the first time a Clinton campaign began with this steady march from inaction to inevitability. In fact, I wrote the same words that top this column 10 years ago, about the same woman. Then I was a local politics reporter and got a bit of mileage out of a New York Observer piece in a genre I've always liked: stating the obvious, forcefully.

It was outrageously premature, but even then I'd been covering the junior senator from New York long enough to have the clear sense that this wasn't exactly about covering one woman's decision, more about an apparatus that, switched on, was chugging away.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has a re-election campaign in front of her in 2006, but as far as many around her are concerned, the train has already departed for a destination two years farther out-the Presidency.

"She is going to focus on going for Senate and getting that out of the way, but the eye is always on the prize," a former aide to Mrs. Clinton told The Observer.

I reached back out this month to the usual suspects I quoted in that piece — organizer Harold Ickes, a couple anonymice, and strategist Howard Wolfson to ask if I should write it again. "Seems reasonable," replied Wolfson, who now works for Mike Bloomberg. (That was an improvement on his 2004 reply: "You can say, 'Wolfson would not discuss '08.'")

Today's Clinton campaign, like the one back then, is a tractor trailer moving down the highway, one whose driver — Hillary — can exert some control over its direction and speed, but whose stopping distance is measured in miles, and who can barely control the thing at all once it's rolling downhill.

So the question isn't what she's done to run; it's whether she's made any effort to hit the brakes, or whether anything has fallen unexpectedly across her path. Since leaving the State Department last February, Clinton has focused primarily on making money. She's on the speaking circuit, which while occasionally embarrassing is obviously a much cleaner and less compromising way to cash in than the rainmaking roles — "advising," "consulting," "lobbying" — where non-celebrity politicians make their bread. She's written an innocuous book, come out on the correct side of various major issues — from Syria to Ferguson — once the dust had settled and the politics were clear; and rested up a bit. Her husband has been uncharacteristically low-profile, her daughter has left a job that threatened to become an embarrassing instance of patronage.

Clinton hasn't done anything much, that is. Certainly nothing even the most obsessive readers of tea leaves would interpret as a decisive move.

But then that is the weird thing about the Clinton campaign. The campaign is the default. The tractor trailer has now proceeded rather far down the highway. It's moving at a constant speed, not doing anything much to attract attention. But all the exits have passed, and all that's left are those runaway truck ramps, not the sort of place Clintons historically wind up.

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