The counter-attack on NBC’s Hillary Clinton miniseries will end up, like most of the pseudo fights in the culture wars, paying dividends for every faction in the dispute. Republicans will stoke their base with this newest evidence that powerful media elites harbor a liberal bias; NBC will end up reaping as many as 40-50 million viewers for two nights of television, the kind of ratings bonanza that is supposedly a thing of the past for non football events; and Hillary’s status as a political heavyweight is enhanced. Everybody not aligned with Joe Biden’s or Cory Booker’s presidential ambitions ends up winning.
But rather than dwell on the lines that a network crosses in promoting a potential candidate’s image when its news division will regularly be making coverage judgments about that candidate, and vetting tips and storylines that could weaken the bet its entertainment division is placing, Republicans would do better to remember why those lines are being crossed. Putting partisan blinders aside, it has infinitely more to do with the television industry’s single mindedness about money than any cheerleading agenda. And the nature of the popularity that makes NBC confident that a Clinton miniseries will pay off ought to stress Republicans considerably more than what questions an NBC moderator would pose during a Republican debate.
This is the Hillary threat in its broadest context: she is for a generation of professional women, the most conspicuous example of an exquisitely successful balance between motherhood, marriage, and career; for consumers of the last twenty years worth of political/celebrity culture, the Clintons are on a very short list of figures in this era whose reputation has survived so long and actually prospered (maybe Oprah, Buffett and Gates) ; and the resilience inside that survival is the kind of narrative that props up the self help-fixated space in our psychology that knows no class, gender, racial or ideological boundaries. Note that not one line of that portfolio has anything to do with her emerging childcare platform, her just rolled out proposal to undo voting restrictions, or her stewardship of the massive infrastructure that is the State Department, or any of the other standard policy components of a candidacy that her putative 2016 rivals are laboring to assemble right now.
Put another way, NBC is not so much creating a phenomenon around Hillary Clinton: it is preparing to make money from the phenomenon that already exists. And since the mythology that makes Hillary worthy of a commercial gamble is completely separated from her politics, conventional campaign attacks—politics as usual—will struggle to diminish that foundation. That’s not to say that 2016 is destined to be a coronation, but that certain casual assumptions about a Hillary race shouldn’t be as glibly tossed off as they are some in GOP consultant circles—namely that Obama fatigue will damage her, that she has already blown one presidential opportunity, or that the appetite for something novel will undercut her as it did in 2008.
Every one of those intuitions about Clinton’s vulnerability seems sound enough until they roll up against one undeniable fact: five years ago, her brand wasn’t strong enough that a network (and let us not forget a big screen movie in development) would have even considered betting its capital on her. The Hillary of 2008 was too wrapped in the psychodrama of her husband’s adventures, too polarizing, too retrograde to justify that kind of high stakes wager. For whatever combination of reasons, from one more bout of redemption by serving the president who defeated her, to the possibility that after the last four years, experience and bipartisan appeal seem valuable again, the Hillary of the present is decidedly more formidable: ultimately, she has reversed the disintegration over time concept that erodes most brands, a sizable achievement given our chronically weak attention span.
To repeat, none of this means that a Clinton victory is anything like a sure thing. But it is a reminder that the path to beating her is neither a scorched earth personal attack nor a second straight campaign on the terrors a liberal agenda might entail for the builders and the makers: the goodwill and fascination that make Hillary a surefire marketing investment aren’t likely to be cracked by rehashing or going hard negative. Instead, victory would almost certainly involve presenting an actual vision of how an America led by a conservative might flourish and trumping her biography with a rationale for how that vision will deliver a country that is more cohesive and fairer. Of course, Hillary has brought the best out of an opponent before.