So Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to say next month that she’s officially a presidential candidate. What does that mean?
It means more than meets the eye. It answers the most important question in politics today, rendering the speculative real. It focuses the political world on the implications of a Democratic nominee with no apparent strong challengers. It begins the testing of the clearest frontrunner since William Howard Taft sought the presidency in 1912.
American presidential campaigns are peculiar spectacles, with peculiar time-honored customs, none more so than the official announcement of a candidacy. These are set-piece events, and customarily the candidate gets a free pass that first day: The contender sets out a campaign theme and a general philosophy of government, usually without interference from critics.
In a classic of this genre, Sen. John F. Kennedy accomplished all that in one sentence in the first minute of his remarks, though that sentence went on for 117 words:
For it is in the Executive Branch that the most crucial decisions of this century must be made in the next four years — how to end or alter the burdensome arms race, where Soviet gains already threaten our very existence — how to maintain freedom and order in the newly emerging nations — how to rebuild the stature of American science and education — how to prevent the collapse of our farm economy and the decay of our cities — how to achieve, without further inflation or unemployment, expanded economic growth benefiting all Americans — and how to give direction to our traditional moral purpose, awakening every American to the dangers and opportunities that confront us.
Every detail is scrutinized: the message, the code words, even the city (or in the case of Gary Hart in 1987, the rock-encrusted outdoor amphitheater, and, in the case of Ronald Reagan in 1979, a wood-paneled office). Bill Clinton announced his candidacy at the Old State House in Little Rock, Ark., and set out the theme of both his candidacy and his presidency in the second paragraph of his remarks:
All of you, in different ways, have brought me here today, to step beyond a life and a job I love, to make a commitment to a larger cause: Preserving the American Dream … Restoring the hopes of the forgotten middle class … Reclaiming the future for our children.
These announcement events are much like a wedding — arguably the least important day of a marriage but the most planned.
In Ms. Clinton’s case, she will likely seek to set forth a governing philosophy that differs from that of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama while paying fealty to both. She will strive to offer a vision that takes the country beyond the two Clinton and two Obama terms. And for the political cognoscenti, she almost certainly will signal that her 2016 drive for the White House will not be a re-run of her tumultuous 2008 campaign, which sank of its own weight and is remembered more for its internal feuds than for its external sense of purpose.
Ms. Clinton will have to decide who stands with her on the stage, choosing among a husband who was president, a daughter who was reared in the White House and a 6-month-old child who has cast the onetime senator as a grandmother — and probably choosing all of them. (This is not a sexist aside. Should Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announce for president, he must decide whether to focus attention on his status as a grandfather of five.)
Ms. Clinton may want to use the occasion to shape the public perception of her personality and style, much the way Vice President George H.W. Bush did when he made his announcement in October 1987:
I am not a mystic, and I do not yearn to lead a crusade. My ambitions are perhaps less dramatic, but they are no less profound.
Mr. Bush’s remarks, delivered in a Houston hotel ballroom festooned with balloons and bunting, illustrate how these announcements can be, and sometimes should be, swiftly forgotten.
His speech, made before anyone knew about the Taliban or al-Qaida, included a fateful vow: “I intend to help the freedom fighters of the world fight for freedom.” His first example turned out to be a nightmare for his son, George W. Bush, who followed him in the White House eight years later: “In the hills of Afghanistan — we will help them.”
For Ms. Clinton, as for Vice President Bush, an official campaign announcement will be both liberating and constricting.
She will lose her freedom of movement. She will lose her freedom of association. She will lose her freedom of thought.
But she will gain the national attention that is the oxygen of a successful presidential campaign. She will gain the attention and loyalty of activists who held back while the “will-she-run” conversation ran wild. She will gain the financial support of big-money backers who now will focus their efforts on a single task and goal.
There is no set rule, nor really any guidelines, on the optimal time for such an announcement.
In an earlier, less complicated (but arguably more competitive) period, neither Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower nor Sen. Kennedy entered the presidential races of 1952 and 1960, respectively, until the January of the election year itself. Indeed, Gen. Eisenhower didn’t even declare himself a Republican until that January.
Trying to steal a march on his competitors in a crowded field, former Republican Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV declared his 1988 candidacy on Sept. 16, 1986, while midterm congressional races still raged 26 months before the actual presidential election. Mr. du Pont’s candidacy ended shortly after the New Hampshire primary.
Ms. Clinton’s status as an unannounced presidential candidate doesn’t spare her from criticism. Just last week a contretemps raged over her failure to use official email channels as secretary of state, and moments after the controversy erupted another unannounced presidential candidate weighed in on Twitter:
“Transparency matters. Unclassified @HillaryClinton emails should be released. You can see mine, here. http://?jebbushemails.com.”
Four years ago, Mr. Obama announced his candidacy for re-election in 2012 with a video on his website and an email. At least no one had to worry about the weather.