Amazing things, cell phones. Craig Smith answered his on the second, maybe third ring. Somewhere in the Middle East.
“It’s midnight here,” he said, though he didn’t protest.
Smith does political consulting — strategic communications, it sometimes is called — for a global clientele. I didn’t push to know in which country in the Middle East he was sleeping that night, and Smith declined to identify it, but the region offers ample opportunities for anyone skilled in political consulting. Or strategic communications. I didn’t hear any artillery in the background but perhaps the streets were quiet that evening, else Smith was toiling for one of the more stable governments.
Smith, who worked in Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial administration, which required stamina, demonstrated an even greater abundance of grit in the first days of Clinton’s presidential campaign by sweeping the grit from the floor of its first headquarters, a Little Rock storefront. In the years that followed, he was a patronage navigator in the White House and eventually its political director. He held senior positions in the Gore-Lieberman campaign of 2000, which did not end as Gore, Lieberman or Smith desired.
That was then. This is now, and Smith is coming back to Arkansas next month with 2016 on his mind. Smith is a primary driver of the vehicle that is setting the stage for another presidential campaign by another Clinton. The organization is called “Waiting for Hillary.” Smith is not waiting.
“This is about grass roots organizing,” Smith said of his efforts in behalf of the former first lady of Arkansas, and the U.S., who also is a former U.S. Senator from New York and the former U.S. Secretary of State, who is writing a memoir (another) that will earn her millions of dollars (the publisher’s advance already has) and is making speeches (at $200,000 per, it is said) that should resolve any college tuition worries for her (contemplated) grandchildren. Not so parenthetically, she is running for president because she has not said she is not running.
Not a single poll suggests Hillary has even a near rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey recorded 73 percent support among likely primary voters, the largest lead of any potential candidate in the poll’s 30-year history.
Hillary the Inevitable? Smith isn’t buying it.
“The party doesn’t give away its nomination,” he said firmly. “You have to work for it. And anybody who’s operating on the assumption that she is going to cakewalk into the nomination is making a mistake.”
I played skeptical. Who else? I asked. Joe Biden, damaged goods? Maryland Gov. Michael O’Malley, the O’Unknown? New York’s Andrew Cuomo, reprising his father’s Hamlet?
“There’s always an element of our party that is somewhat contrarian,” Smith replied. “I can’t imagine that won’t hold true this time around. I think it will be foolish to believe that there won’t be a challenger, that there won’t be a segment of the party that is looking for something different.”
“Clinton fatigue”? I suggested.
“I’m sure the Republicans will try to raise that,” Smith allowed.
They, the Republicans, are also likely to bring up Whitewater, which ran out of gas 15 years ago; and one of their presidential aspirants, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, is attempting to hold Hillary accountable somehow for her husband’s White House dalliance with “that woman,” but it makes him look mean and the effort has many of his own party cringing. There is a former defense secretary’s claim that she acknowledged voting for the Iraq war for political purposes, but he also has said she’d make a capable president, and besides, nobody much wants to think about Iraq. There is also Benghazi, but it has lost any traction since most people understand ours is a dangerous world and because most of the people trying to keep it in the news are ideological hustlers with limited credibility. “Hillarycare”? Obamacare has taken the edge off that.
Republicans have a companion concern: their own staggering disarray. Tea Party shenanigans involving the budget and debt ceiling have fractured the GOP in the House and Senate, seriously damaging the party brand among independent voters and making ever more treacherous the path to the Republican presidential nomination. And — for who? Even should the George Washington Bridge not prove the bridge to nowhere for New Jersey’s Chris Christie, he is viewed with deep skepticism by the “base” and, at his pre-bridge closing peak, could do no better than a statistical dead heat with another former Arkansan — another former governor, another former presidential candidate named Mike Huckabee – both of them barely in double-digits, the latter still regarded as a “tax-and-spender” by the hard right.
So, could Hillary count on Arkansas’s six electoral votes in ’16?
“We’re taking nothing for granted,” Smith said.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.