Amid criticism, Clinton sticks to low-key campaign strategy

Published 9:13 am Thursday, May 21, 2015

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — During two days of campaigning this week in Iowa, Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t make a formal speech. She answered questions from reporters, but only for five minutes. Pressed by a moderator at her own event to say where she stood on a trade pact that’s dividing her party, she steered clear.

It was the kind of trip that infuriates her Republican critics, yet gives them fodder to keep up their argument she’s a candidate dodging tough issues and avoiding taking positions that could haunt her politically. That’s started to worry some Democrats, who are publicly prodding Clinton to wade deeper into the political fray and pick a side on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal.

Clinton and her team are unmoved. They’re sticking to their plans for a low-key start to her second presidential campaign, displaying an early level of discipline that was lacking when Clinton sought the White House in 2008 and struggled with campaign infighting over strategy.

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It’s an approach they’ve crafted to show voters Clinton isn’t taking the Democratic nomination for granted. Yet by not taking a stand on issues of the day and dismissing some of the traditional trappings of presidential campaigns, some political operatives say Clinton risks appearing as if she’s doing just that.

“There is a demand if you are a candidate to signify a lack of entitlement by submitting yourself to questions from the news media on a regular basis,” said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama. “There is risk to that, but it is a risk that comes along with the task of running for president.”

Before a brief exchange with reporters Tuesday, Clinton hadn’t taken questions from the press in nearly a month. Republican presidential hopefuls seized on her reluctance to engage with reporters and repeatedly mocked her for ducking questions.

“You can’t script your way to the presidency,” said Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor.

So far, Clinton’s campaign does have the appearance of a carefully choreographed operation. Each of her stops in the early-voting states has looked similar to her two-day swing through Iowa this week, where she attended a meet-and-greet with local officials and campaign volunteers at a home in Mason City, discussed economic policy with small business owners at a bicycle shop in Cedar Falls, and dropped by a coffee shop in Independence for an espresso and sandwich.

The house party she attended in Mason City was invitation-only and, as with her past policy roundtables, participants at the small business event were selected by the campaign.

Even when unexpected moments arise, Clinton sticks to her script. When a small business owner asked her Tuesday to state her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, Clinton politely refused.

“I want to judge the final agreement,” she said.

Clinton’s advisers intended her campaign to start slowly. She will hold a more formal campaign kick-off next month, likely with a major speech and a series of one-on-one interviews. But even as the campaign enters that phase, aides say Clinton will still do the smaller events like those she’s held so far.

Though she never mentioned her critics directly, Clinton pushed back this week at those who say she should be taking a different approach.

“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Well, you’re going to these events where you’re taking time to actually talk and listen to people, is that really what you’re going to do?”’ she said Monday. “And I said, ‘Well, yes it is.”’

Clinton’s advisers also dispute the notion she is avoiding taking positions on policy, pointing to her backing of Obama’s executive actions on immigration and her call to outfit police departments with body cameras. On Tuesday, she voiced her opposition to Republican-backed legislation that would revamp the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

But each was unveiled as part of a careful rollout by Clinton’s campaign. She’s been far less willing to weigh in on issues that don’t fit with her campaign schedule, including the fall of Ramadi to Islamic State militants in Iraq over the weekend.

Clinton’s sidestepping on the Asia-Pacific trade pact has been most notable, given that Congress is currently debating whether to give Obama the ability to seek faster ratification of a final deal.

While Clinton called the pact the “gold standard” of trade agreements while serving as secretary of state, she has refused to take a position on the deal since announcing her candidacy.

As Clinton spoke to small business owners in Cedar Falls on Tuesday, a small group of protesters stood outside demanding she clarify her stance on the trade pact. Chris Schwartz, an Iowa organizer with the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action, said Clinton’s silence was “troubling.”

“People in Iowa and people across the country want to know the specifics on all of these issues, including TPP,” Schwartz said, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “We have a right to have our questions answered.”