Her poll numbers are staggering. Fellow Democrats fear her. So do some Republicans. The main question now is, when will the right start hating Hillary Clinton again and kick a "Stop HRC" movement into high gear?
You could hear the sounds of the ignition being turned during the past 10 days as an illness that led to a concussion (under circumstances that the public still knows little about) forced Clinton to cancel Senate testimony about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. That led to charges of a cover-up from some dependably anti-Clinton quarters, such as the New York Post and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
A blog post Wednesday by The Weekly Standard -- promptly blared across the Drudge Report with the headline, "Where's Hillary?" -- questioned the scant explanation out of Clinton's camp of her two-week public absence this month.
But there was a cautious quality to much of that criticism. The language used by the Post, a longtime Clinton antagonist, was tough but not disrespectful. And Sen. Lindsey Graham said conservatives peddling the idea that Clinton faked her illness to get out of testifying need to knock it off. "I think that's inappropriate and not true," the South Carolina Republican said last week.
That all fed a sense that the engine of the once vaunted anti-Hillary machine still seems stuck in neutral.
She is scheduled to have a rain date before the Senate in January, but some of the passion over Benghazi may have dissipated by then. A special report led to the resignation of lower-tier State Department officials and did not target Clinton. And when she testifies, some of her old Senate Republican colleagues may be mindful of being too tough at a public hearing, meaning that unless she makes a misstep, she likely will get a respectful greeting.
Which leaves a status quo in place that would have been unthinkable for conservatives just four short years ago: The anti-Hillary Clinton industrial-entertainment complex, a source of income and headlines for conservatives over much of the past two decades, has been dormant while she's been at the State Department. There has been no Clinton in elected office, a constant in American political life since the 1990s, for four years. The secretary of State has generally become an apolitical and deeply popular figure -- and Republican nominee Mitt Romney spent much of 2012 lionizing the Clinton legacy.
Some Republicans believe it's only a matter of time before she appears in more direct-mail appeals. A second Hillary presidential campaign seems eminently possible, and it's already prompting a fundraising appeal from the PAC ActRight, helmed by National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown, who recently wrote to his list: "The time to start planning for the defeat of Hillary Clinton is right now."
Still, absent a clear point of attack against her -- a policy position she's staking out, or a candidate she endorses -- it's not clear whether the anti-Hillary cottage industry will ever exist the same way it once did.
"Hillary's not ... a high-profile candidate now," said conservative leader Richard Viguerie. "We're not thinking Hillary. We've got all we can do to handle the Senate Democrats and Harry Reid and Barack Obama."
"I don't think that it will come back in the same form that it did," agreed John Podhoretz, the former New York Post editorial page editor who now writes for Commentary magazine.
Podhoretz, who wrote a book about Clinton called, "Can She Be Stopped? Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States Unless ..." in 2006, said he learned the hard way that the anti-Hillary energy was already dissipating. There was a "disconnect" between the anti-Clinton wave he and his publisher were counting on, Podhoretz said, and the partisan energy that existed at the time.
Since her presidential effort flopped and she joined the Obama administration, Clinton has been absent from the partisan fray. Her husband has been very much a Republican critic, serving as an early and often surrogate on Obama's behalf, but he, too, is not perceived in the vitriolic terms he once was. When she begins campaigning again or being political again, she will get criticism, Podhoretz said, but not of the outsized type she used to receive.
"I just don't think that there's the same kind of heat," Podhoretz said, noting that beyond Obama's health care legislation, she has stayed largely out of domestic issues. "And I think whoever the Democratic nominee in 2016 is will generate counter passions, but I don't think she's going to do it anymore than anybody else is and possibly less. ... I think that will all be generated on the spot by what she says and what she does."
What is still unclear about the Benghazi fallout is whether it represents a relative blip on the screen or the beginning of a change in approach to her by Republicans.
Faith & Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed, who worked to turn out evangelical voters in the last cycle, believes the return of Hillary-hating is a when, not if.
"The intensity of the opposition to Hillary Clinton on the right has abated somewhat during her years at the State Department for obvious reasons," he said. "She's been a diplomat, not a candidate. But should she begin to test the waters of a presidential candidacy, there will be renewed scrutiny by both the media and her critics, and at least some of the old dynamic will likely return, perhaps with renewed vigor."
Whether she becomes a lightning rod for a broad swath of the party is an open question. Twelve years ago, Republican Rick Lazio was able to raise millions off a fundraising appeal by pointing out that his opponent was the most polarizing figure of her day.
"It won't take me six pages to convince you to send me an urgently needed contribution," he wrote, adding, "It will take only six words: I'm running against Hillary Rodham Clinton."
There are other reasons for Republicans to be mindful of how hard they attack her -- their own brand issues, put on plain display after the 2012 cycle, including among women.
"Right now, Hillary Clinton is not only secretary of State and the leader in waiting of the Democratic Party, she is also the leader of the women's movement in America," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who cautioned she still is seen as a bridge to the past, not the future.
But he added, "She is the most powerful symbol of American women's success in a man's world. It is going to be tough for Republicans to attack her without also attacking what she represents. My guess is that being represented as the party that opposes American women's success is not a great political idea."
This does not mean that Clinton will get a pass should she start becoming more political in the immediate future -- wading into the 2013 campaign cycle, for instance. Longtime Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe is seeking the governor's office in Virginia, a race that some conservatives see as an opportunity to road-test attacks on the former first family.
"Conservatives are going to want to make sure that the American people, using the [McAuliffe candidacy] as a vehicle, remember" the Clinton-era scandals of the 1990s, said Citizens United head David Bossie, whose unsuccessful efforts to air a movie about Hillary Clinton in 2007 led to the Supreme Court case that allowed the super PACs of 2012 to exist.
"If I was [Republican candidate] Ken Cucinelli I would be reminding people of it," said Bossie. (McAuliffe backers point out that this is a flawed concept for a number of reasons, one of which is that anyone for whom these attacks would resonate are likely already voting for the Republican).
Yet Bossie conceded it's not a sure thing that criticizing Hillary pays the dividends it once did. "That question will answer itself over the next six months or a year as organizations talk about her," he said.
In the mid-2000s, former New York congressman and conservative John Leboutillier, now a Fox News host, tried to raise funds for a "Counter-Clinton Library" in Little Rock, Ark. It flopped - and he expects similar efforts now will, too.
"She will not be the lightning rod she was 20 years ago, for reasons to do with her and more to do with conservatism, which is, I don't need to tell you, deeply troubled," he said, calling it "an exhaustive, spent volcano at the moment. That encapsulates everything except the tea party, and they don't have anything to do with Hillary Clinton."
Mike McKeon, a Republican strategist and longtime adviser to former New York Gov. George Pataki who witnessed her 2000 campaign up close, said that she's still catnip for parts of the conservative base.
"It's a reflex they can't ignore, not a voluntary act," he said. "I am really not trying to be snarky. But Hillary still drives that kind of reaction, and the more she moves away from foreign affairs and does things like [support] gay marriage, the more they will not be able to resist."
One Republican strategist, speaking of the Hillary-hating industry, was more blunt: "If she works in the mail and on the phones with small donors, she'll get hit. We'll look stupid. But when did that ever stop us?"
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