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The Real Problem With GOP’s “Hillary Is Old News” Strategy

Jonathan Martin, newly arrived at the Grey Lady from the Tiger Beat on the Potomac, caused quite a stir with his piece yesterday noting the emerging outlines of the Republican case against Hillary Clinton, should she run for president in 2016: to paint her as “old news,” a “has-been.” This has provoked widespread ridicule from commentators who have noted that Hillary, should she run, would be no older than the Republicans’ favorite president of the past century when he was elected in 1980, and that it would be awfully tricky for Republicans to make the old-crone attack without seeming sexist and ageist.

But this reaction misses the more nuanced point in Martin’s piece. The Republicans he quoted are not so much saying that they will mock Hillary for her wrinkles as that they will try to cast her as the relic of an earlier era that the country has moved on from. As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a possible 2016 GOP prospect, recently said, invoking the Clintons’ favorite Fleetwood Mac song: “If you want to keep thinking about tomorrow, maybe it’s time to put somebody new in.” And before we mock that line of attack against Clinton, bear in mind that it worked pretty well for another guy just a few years ago. If Barack Obama's challenge of Clinton for the 2008 Democratic nomination had a unifying theme, it was this: that it was time to leave behind the partisan gamesmanship and cynical trimming that took hold in the 1990s and move on to a “new politics.” As he put it in the Des Moines Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in November 2007 that is widely credited with sparking his campaign in Iowa:

We have a chance to bring the country together in a new majority—to finally tackle problems that George Bush made far worse but that had festered long before George Bush ever took office—problems that we've talked about year after year after year after year. And that is why the same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do in this election. That's why not answering questions because we are afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do. That's why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do.

That was all about painting Hillary as old news, and it worked. But here's the thing: it is probably less likely to work for the Republicans in 2016, even though Hillary will be eight years older than she was when Obama used this tack. Why? Because of...Obama. When Hillary ran in 2008, voters were susceptible to the “let's try something new” line because they were in the midst of the unnervingly dynastic Bush-Clinton-Bush streak. Not to mention that the memories of the less savory aspects of Clintonism (Dick Morris, Marc Rich, etc.) were still fresh in many Democratic primary voters’ minds. But that dynastic chain was broken in a big way by Barack Hussein Obama. It’s still pretty weird that we could be facing a fourth president from two families in a few decades, and there is still plenty of time for the Clintons to remind us of the things that gave us pause back then. But so very novel was the Obama presidency that voters will be more willing to settle for the known and familiar in 2016 than they were in 2008—especially now, post-Great Recession, when the old era that the known and familiar represents is remembered with increasing nostalgia for its general prosperity.

It’s the ultimate Obama-Clinton irony: by beating Hillary with the “old news” tack, Obama also made it harder for Republicans to use against it her when she is, in fact, eight years older.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis