Why Hillary Needs A Primary Challenger

There’s a way to distract from the scandals that engulfed the Clintons in the '90s.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks after receiving the 2013 Lantos Human Rights Prize during a ceremony on Capitol Hill Dec. 6, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

A primary challenger would allow Hillary Clinton to move past her husband's affair early on in the campaign.

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The recent revelations about Hillary Clinton’s explanation of the Monica Lewinsky affair and Sen. Rand Paul’s willingness to label former President Bill Clinton a “sexual predator” are together serving ample notice that the 2016 presidential campaign could very well end up devolving into a tawdry throwback of the 1990s.

That becomes even more likely if Clinton’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination is not a contest at all, but rather a glorified coronation.

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The question of whether the drama and intrigue of Hillary and Bill’s four decade-long marriage is fair game for public scrutiny almost seems irrelevant in today’s hyperactive social media era when a single billionaire can prop up a super PAC and a partisan outlet has the ability to drive a narrative. The appetite for Clinton coverage on all fronts is already insatiable two years ahead of the first primary vote; interest in stories about sex have cut across all demographic and ideological lines since the beginning of time.

In other words, the mud on the Clintons will be recycled and flung, one way or another.

How much of it lands and whether it sticks may very well depend on whether Clinton draws a legitimate primary opponent. Despite the searing memory of her 2008 defeat, she may be better off attracting one, not only to fine-tune her message but to suck up political oxygen.

Whereas Republicans appear to be trudging their way towards another large and colorful nomination battle in 2016, Clinton’s outsized presence has largely frozen the Democratic field.

If that pattern holds, while the media will be fully satiated with stories about the scrum on the GOP side, the Clinton beat will look comparably vacuous in the early months of the campaign. That won’t stifle demand for Clinton-centric stories, of course. It could just create substantial bandwidth for the reexamination of old scandals in a new 2016 frame or the pursuit of new tidbits from old Clinton travails.

A primary challenger -- one spunky and serious enough to attract media attention but insufficiently armed to pose a grave threat -- would help fill the void, goes one line of argument.

“She could use a Potemkin primary challenger to deflect coverage and distract voters from this stuff. Got hundreds of news outlets looking for political coverage and used to focusing on horse race angles. If there isn't a horse race, they have to focus on something. Column inches have to be filled,” says one unaligned political strategist speaking freely in exchange for anonymity. “She needs the illusion of a competition. A [Bill] Bradley or a [Paul] Tsongas. Who knows? Maybe Martin O'Malley will serve a purpose in this world.”

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At this stage, O’Malley, the ambitious two-term Maryland governor, is the only Democratic contender willing to make real noise about the possibility. Earlier this month, he told The Washington Post he had “the responsibility to prepare” for a White House bid and said he wasn’t going to squander preparation time because of Clinton’s polling dominance. Vice President Joe Biden has also kept the option on the table, but seems less likely to challenge Clinton given their close personal friendship.

“Even when they were opponents in the primary, anytime someone would mention his name around her, she would get this little smile. She really likes [Biden]. He really likes her, ” one of Clinton’s top aides is quoted saying in the new book “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.”

Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, who served as deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, predicted Republicans would be punished if they raised the dirty laundry from the Clinton marriage as a central campaign issue.

“Voters are more cynical towards Washington than at any time in my adult life. Their patience for political opponents rehashing a 20-year-old scandal instead of addressing the serious problems our country is facing is going to be pretty limited,” he says. “I hope Republicans spend a lot of time attacking the Clintons for something that happened 20 years ago, because voters will grow wary of that quickly.”

Mainstream Republican figures seem to agree, with Mitt Romney, Karl Rove and even Rick Santorum displaying ample queasiness or outright opposition to going there. But there are enough other hands on deck to conduct the dirty work.  

It could look unseemly and even downright desperate, but because so much time has passed -- Clinton was impeached 16 years ago this December -- there are two decades of voters who have come online since the Lewinsky saga.  

“So they need a reminder it wasn’t always cute [being] Bill,” says the anonymous strategist.

Or as Tim Miller, the executive director of the GOP-aligned America Rising PAC, puts it: “The Dems are certainly going to try to leverage ‘90s nostalgia, just look at Bill Clinton’s DNC speech in 2012 as exhibit A.  So it is important for younger voters to remember the ‘90s wasn’t all You’ve Got Mail and flannel.”

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Democrats will point out repeatedly that the extramarital affairs weren’t Hillary’s scandal -- and that she won’t be blamed for her husband’s foibles. But when she’s defending her husband’s philandering with an intern as “consensual” and “not sex within any real meaning” as well as decrying sexual harassment victims as “whiney women” -- as she is quoted in the Diane Blair papers -- it raises some acute questions about one’s character and grand political motivations.

“If you assume it was all a business arrangement and her choices were rational under the provocation,she comes off as a device ruled by ambition. It just doesn’t seem human to blithely share your husband,” the strategist asserts.

A primary, on the other hand, would force a debate on substance pertaining to the here and now and satisfy the media’s voracious Clinton appetite.  

Sharing a debate stage with O’Malley, Biden or even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D.-Mass., and being pressed on issues like fracking, entitlement reform and the prospect of a nuclear Iran wouldn’t be the way Clinton envisioned her second inevitable run for the White House.

But when compared to relitigating the '90s, it seems like a no-brainer.