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Inside Politics: Clinton war of words -- 'It's just the beginning'

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Fri May 16, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republican strategist Karl Rove asked if Hillary Clinton had suffered brain injury
  • Bill Clinton laughed off Rove's attack, saying, "They'll get better at it"
  • Clinton confidant thinks the "cheap shot" makes it more likely that she'll run

John King and other top political reporters talk midterms, 2016 and fallout from the Veterans Affairs scandal on "Inside Politics," Sunday at 8:30 a.m. ET on CNN.

Washington (CNN) -- Who needs the Kardashians -- or has time for them, anyway -- when "Keeping up with the Clintons" is so entertaining. Not to mention exhausting.

Karl Rove raises the idea that Hillary Clinton suffered a traumatic brain injury, and the debate rages:

A. A low blow reckless gossip nugget?

B. A legitimate point about her health and her transparency?

C. Proof Republicans are so afraid of her they are getting hyper-tough now, hoping she chooses the calm of civilian life?

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D. All of the above?

As you debate that, consider this sage observation from Bill Clinton, the former President who for decades now has reveled in dishing out political advice and analysis: "You can't get too upset about it. It's just the beginning. They will get better at it."

Speaking in his signature raspy drawl, laughing the entire time, he also worked in a priceless nugget that reminds us the Clintons know hardball, and are hard to surprise no matter how loud, low, or legitimate the attack: "I'm still waiting for them to admit there was nothing to Whitewater. It's just part of the deal."

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Too young to get the Whitewater reference? Try your favorite Internet search engine. Or call an Arkansas real estate agent and suggest you are looking for a nostalgic vacation retreat.

Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a veteran of both Bill Clinton campaigns who remains a family confidant, offered this take on the Clintons-dominated political week:

"The Clintons learned a long time ago that no matter what they do, the kook right will attack them and the media will cover them."

"Rove was being stupid, not smart. His comments anger principled conservatives and engender support for Hillary, both among the Rove-hating Democratic base and the smear-hating center. Plus, if I know Hillary, Karl's cheap shot makes her more likely to run, not less -- which is something Karl does not want."

Details aside, it was a week to remember that -- love them or not -- the Clintons are a formidable political team. And a week, or maybe two weeks, of building the list of questions, both policy and personal, awaiting a Clinton 2016 campaign.

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Are Karl Rove's attacks hurting the GOP?

From Benghazi to Boko Haram, there were fresh assertions from Republicans that Citizen Clinton often exaggerates her successes or ignores her shortcomings as secretary of state.

America Rising, a GOP group that critiques Secretary Clinton on a near-daily, sometimes hourly basis, was quick on Thursday to distribute a report from Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast that led with this:

"Hillary Clinton is now claiming to be the architect of crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy. But during her tenure as secretary of state, her department repeatedly opposed or tried to water down an array of sanctions measures that were pushed into law by Democrats and Republicans in Congress."

A pattern of avoiding the reality of her record, America Rising suggested, noting recent Clinton statements about Russia and the Nigerian kidnapping it said could not be squared with her actions at Foggy Bottom.

Rove attacks show GOP's concerns about Clinton

Bill Clinton stepped up this past week as his wife's chief defender, specifically addressing Benghazi but suggesting she did all she could, and then adding that Republicans never talk about the deaths at overseas diplomatic outposts during the George W. Bush administration.

Rove's "TBI" suggestion was first reported by The New York Post, with a dramatic headline suggesting the GOP strategist had suggested she had brain damage.

"I never used that phrase," Rove said on Fox News.

Still over the line if, as reported, he suggested she had some lasting traumatic brain injury. Cleaning up his language later is a time-tested method of attack politics: say something provocative to plant a seed -- and start the conversation -- and then stage a rhetorical retreat filled with softer language.

But Rove's broader point is legitimate: If she runs for president, Secretary Clinton will face enormous pressure to release more details about her December 2012 fall and concussion.

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Bill Clinton guaranteed that this week even as he shrugged off the Rove attack. "First they say she faked her concussion and now they say she is auditioning for a part on 'The Walking Dead,'" the former President said.

But he went on to say this, proving this was no minor fall: "She had sustained what was a terrible concussion. Required six months of very serious work to get over." The former President said his wife, "never low-balled" the severity of her injury with the American people.

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Perhaps not, but she never discussed it in great detail, either.

In a January 2013 interview with CBS, she said: "I still have some lingering effects from falling on my head and having the blood clot. But, you know, the doctors tell me that that will all recede. And so thankfully I'm, you know, looking forward to being at full speed. ... I have some lingering effects from the concussion that are decreasing and will disappear. But I have a lot of sympathy now when I pick up the paper and read about an athlete or one of our soldiers who's had traumatic brain injury. I'd never had anything like that in my family. And so, you know, I'm very conscious of how lucky I was."

If she is a candidate for president, she will be asked for her medical records, and to make her doctors available. Those questions are not ageist or sexist, but routine.

As the Rove-Clinton drama played out, and most everyone in Washington took Bill Clinton's vocal and aggressive defense of his wife as more proof she will run, Matt Bai of Yahoo News weighed in with a thoughtful look at the constant Clinton speculation.

He took issue with reporters and pundits who see all the stories and maneuverings as carefully orchestrated from within Camp Clinton.

"What we're really looking at is a campaign orchestrated by nervous Democrats and aimed at persuading Clinton herself," Bai writes.

"The truth is that, leaving aside all this bravado about happy demographics and the disunion of Republicans, Democrats are scared out of their minds right now. The House is solidly out of reach. The Senate is slipping away. And the White House could be close behind, especially if Clinton doesn't run, and if Republicans can rally around a credible candidate."

All true. All very true. A leading reason so many Democrats jumped to endorse Hillary Clinton so early is that they believe only someone as formidable as her can keep the White House in Democratic hands after two Obama terms,

It's part of what makes the Hillary chatter so fascinating. And entertaining. And remember, to borrow that line again from Bill Clinton: "It's just the beginning."

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