Can Anyone Stop Hillary?

Why Clinton's 2016 candidacy-without-a-campaign dominates the political galaxy

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Photo-illustration by Justin Metz for TIME. Pants: Don Farrall–Getty Images, Man: BLOOM image–Getty Images, Shoe: yasinguneysu–Getty Images

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As head of the State Department, Clinton sided with the generals in favor of a large Afghanistan troop surge. She pressed to arm the Syrian rebels and later endorsed air strikes against the Assad regime. A new report from the Senate Intelligence Committee faults her department over security lapses leading up to the 2012 terrorist attack on Americans in Benghazi. But in earlier decisions, Clinton's team at State enabled Obama's lethal drone campaign. On at least three crucial issues--the surge in Afghanistan, bombing Libya and the raid to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden--Clinton favored more-aggressive action than Gates himself.

"She is a hawk, but she's a smart hawk," says James Jeffrey, a former ambassador under Clinton and a Deputy National Security Adviser in George W. Bush's White House. Her spokesman, Merrill, prefers the word pragmatic but doesn't dispute the larger characterization of Clinton's attitude toward military force: "Her approach was always that diplomacy, development and defense were only effective if used together."

Blurring the bright lines of an increasingly polarized public has always been the Clinton family business. Give them the choice of A or B and they'll gravitate to C. Her husband was the Bible-quoting libertine who jogged to McDonald's (before heart disease made him a virtual vegan). He preferred "triangulation" to "false choices"--a trait shared by his wife, the feminist drinking buddy of a spear-rattling John McCain.

Can it play again after all these years? Can a candidate who helped define the 1990s captivate a change-hungry electorate hurtling toward the 2020s? Can the sprawling, inbred, rivalrous soap opera of so many previous Clinton campaigns be tamed to compete in the sleek and disciplined post-Obama era? Can a divided Democratic Party, with its beleaguered incumbent President, paper over its differences before the divided Republican Party, with its Tea Party dissidents, papers over its own? These are the sorts of questions that hover over a candidate whose path to the White House seems as clear as any in modern memory. There hasn't been a path so bright since Clinton surveyed her future in 2005, before Obama appeared over the horizon.

And there will be answers--eventually--though not at a pace to satisfy the ravenous appetite of Washington. Hillary Clinton is master of her own calendar. For the time being, she steers the stars and heats the gases; her unseen candidacy dominates the political galaxy. The timing and nature of the next steps are up to her to decide.

--With reporting by Michael Crowley, Jay Newton-Small and Zeke Miller/Washington

Corrections Appended: The original version of this article's first mention of Clinton's press secretary Nick Merrill failed to include his last name. The article also incorrectly stated that Clinton delivered her concession speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention.

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