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First Read: Where's Hillary Clinton's Message?

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
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/ Source: NBC News

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Where’s the message?

There was always a risk to Hillary Clinton’s go-small approach to her early campaign -- and that was lacking a real message. That lack of a message was on display at her Iowa event yesterday. Yes, she listed her four “fights” -- 1) building an economy for tomorrow, 2) strengthening families and communities, 3) fixing America’s political system by getting rid of “unaccountable” money, and 4) protecting the country. And, yes, she struck a more populist tone. “There’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the typical worker,” Clinton said. “And there’s something wrong when hedge-fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses.” But those statements weren’t any different than what you hear from 90% of Democratic candidates running for downballot office. Bottom line: She didn’t say anything unique, which was always going to be the shortcoming of a rollout emphasizing theater over substance/message. We totally get why Clinton decided to go small: She wants to make a new impression and avoid giving any room on the left. Clinton doesn’t want to come across as entitled, presidential, and the same as last time. As Jonathan Martin writes, Hillary “seems determined to prove -- perhaps to the point of overcompensation -- that she will not repeat the mistakes that plagued her 2008 campaign.” She’s accomplishing that. But she also isn’t saying anything new.

Why it’s so striking

The lack of message is all the more striking because one imagines she has thought about that moment for at least four years, if not eight. And the best she could come up with standard Democratic press release talking points.

One recommended message for Hillary --making Washington function better

As Josh Green writes in his Bloomberg Businessweek piece, Clinton didn’t have “a clear, overarching justification for her candidacy” in 2008, either. But Green sees one for her: make Washington function better. (And Clinton kind of alluded to this in her talk about campaign finance yesterday.) “Clinton has always been called a ‘polarizing’ figure (an increasingly meaningless designation that applies to every national politician, as voters have become more partisan). But she has an underappreciated credential that could be a weapon in the upcoming race: a record of thriving in an acrimonious, Republican-dominated climate like the one we have now,” Green says. “As voters begin contemplating who should become the next president, Clinton can, if she chooses, make the strongest claim that she’s best suited to manage in the deteriorating conditions in Washington.” By the way, Clinton today holds her second -- and last -- event in Iowa this week, a roundtable discussion on small business in Norwalk at 12:45 pm ET.

White House caves to Congress on Iran, but still likely preserves its chances of a final deal

“The White House relented on Tuesday and said President Obama would sign a compromise bill giving Congress a voice on the proposed nuclear accord with Iran as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in rare unanimous agreement, moved the legislation to the full Senate for a vote,” the New York Times writes. While Obama has been a more significant player than anyone (including us) would have thought after last year’s midterms -- think Iran, Cuba, immigration -- this is what happens to lame-duck presidents: They have less and less control over their own party. But also keep this in mind: With the White House embracing the Corker legislation, it has pretty much preserved its ability to still get its deal with Iran. Why? More from the Times: “As Congress considers any accord on a very short timetable, it would essentially be able to vote on an eventual end to sanctions, and then later take up the issue depending on whether Iran has met its own obligations. But if it rejected the agreement, Mr. Obama could veto that legislation — and it would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning that Mr. Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail.” In other words, Obama needs 34 Democrats to save the deal. If he can get that, then maybe the deal wasn’t worth making.

But it flexes its muscles on Cuba

While the White House caved to Congress a bit on Iran, it flexed its muscles on Cuba -- by following through with the promise to normalize relations with that country. USA Today: “President Obama told Congress on Tuesday he plans to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, another step in his effort to improve relations with the island after more than 50 years of diplomatic isolation. In a formal notice to Congress, Obama said a State Department review determined that Cuba -- added to the terrorism list in 1982 -- met the requirements for removal.”

Rubio blasts the White House’s Cuba move

Newly minted presidential candidate Marco Rubio was among the first to blast the Obama administration’s decision on Cuba. “Well, the decision made by the White House today is a terrible one, but not surprising unfortunately. Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. They harbor fugitives of American justice, including someone who killed a police officer in New Jersey over 30 years ago. It’s also the country that’s helping North Korea evade weapons sanctions by the United Nations.” Yet as Rubio portrays himself as the political candidate of the future -- see this new announcement video from him saying that “Yesterday is over!” -- this statement opens himself up to attacks that he’s still fighting fights of the past, like the Cold War. Indeed, 59% of Americans (including 63% of those ages 18-29) approve of the recent decision to give Cuba diplomatic recognition, according to this month’s MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll.

Look who else is thinking about joining the 2016 field -- John Kasich

We forgot to include this news from earlier in the week, but it’s still important to note: Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he’s “seriously considering” a presidential run. But here’s the thing: We’ve now reached the stage in the presidential contest where action is GREATER than words. Translation: If you’re going to run and run successfully, you better be taking steps that allow you to do that. Otherwise, if you end up running later than the others, you risk looking like Fred Thompson back in 2007-2008. Kasich needs Jeb Bush (and others) to stumble if he wants a legitimate shot. But does waiting too long for that stumble take you out the game?

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