Republicans have spent much of this year attacking Hillary Clinton where she appears weakest—her trustworthiness and transparency—without doing overwhelming damage. Starting this week, the GOP will shift its attention to where the Democratic frontrunner appears strongest in the eyes of voters: Her competency as a government executive.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Republican National Committee is launching what will be a sustained attack on Clinton’s record as a manager at the State Department. Her time as secretary, of course, has been a common theme of GOP criticism of Clinton since she left the Obama administration—from her role in Benghazi, to the apparent conflicts of interest with her family foundation, to her use of a private email server. The difference this time, though, is that GOP officials appear less concerned with conspiracy and scandal and more interested in day-to-day competence. “Now it’s time to examine her management experience as Secretary of State—overseeing a massive budget, hundreds of overseas facilities, and tens of thousands of her employees,” RNC research director Raj Shah wrote in a memo previewing the strategy. “It was her biggest test yet—and we would argue her biggest failure.”
It’s unclear exactly what specific evidence the RNC plans to offer to make that case, but it appears as though Republicans have their work cut out for them. The only concrete example mentioned in the Journal’s GOP-sanctioned preview was a report last year from the State Department inspector general that discovered $6 billion worth of federal contracts that overlapped with Clinton’s tenure that had either missing or incomplete paperwork. “The failure to maintain contract files adequately creates significant financial risk and demonstrates a lack of internal control over the Department's contract actions,” the IG’s office wrote in the audit, which did not mention Clinton by name and covers a six-year period that continued well after she left office in early 2013.
After crying Benghazi for years, it’s difficult to imagine how resurfacing a far-from-damning IG report —which failed to cause serious handwringing even when it was released—will be enough to alter how voters feel about Clinton’s time as President Obama’s top diplomat. It’s her professional resume, after all, that has remained a bright spot throughout the bad press that has dogged her campaign since its soft launch earlier this year. Many Americans might not like Hillary the person, but her been-there-done-that image is a clear asset on the campaign trail.
In a WSJ-NBC News national poll conducted last month, for instance, 49 percent of respondents suggested they’d be either “confident” or “hopeful” if she were elected president, compared to only 37 percent who said the same thing about Jeb Bush, the GOP rival who fared the best against her in a hypothetical general election matchup. The most common reason for the general optimism about a potential Clinton presidency? Her “experience and background,” which was cited by nearly 6 in 10 of those who said they could see a reason to be happy if she won. (For comparison, 40 percent of those optimistic about a possible Bush victory cited the former Florida governor’s professional resume.)
The risk for Republicans is that by highlighting Clinton’s time leading the State Department, they’ll give her ample opportunity to talk about something she wants to, as opposed to the many things she doesn’t. Still, conservatives don’t need to convince voters that Clinton’s time at the State Department was a net-negative; simply making it less of a selling point could help neutralize her advantage against the eventual GOP nominee. The RNC also doesn’t have much to lose by attacking Clinton on more mundane matters of her State tenure given that doing so will work in concert with the splashier attacks from GOP hopefuls and their allies in Congress. The individual candidates can continue to appeal to the GOP base by taking big swings at Hillary over things like Benghazi. The RNC, meanwhile, can launch more pinpointed attacks on the likely Democratic nominee with an eye on the general election.