Hillary Clinton rises above the dirty tricks

Out of America: Karl Rove says the ex-secretary of state is suffering from a 'traumatic' brain injury. It will take more than that to stop her

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then constant vilification is conclusive proof of terror. So it is with Hillary Clinton and the Republican party. The latter's primary concern right now is not to harass the Obama administration or even complete its takeover of Congress in November's mid-term elections. It is to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the 2016 presidential election, still two and a half years off – and for which she yet even to declare herself a candidate.

First we had Rand Paul, a likely GOP White House contender in 2016, raising the spectre of Monica Lewinsky and accusing Bill Clinton of "predatory behaviour" for "preying on" a helpless intern. This wasn't a personal swipe at the 42nd president, rather an indirect shot at Hillary, reminding the country of what it would be getting into should there be a Clinton restoration in Washington DC.

Then, quite pointlessly, the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill decided to hold hearings into the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, in which four American diplomats were killed. Pointless, in that the tragic incident has already been picked over a thousand times, in Congress and elsewhere – but not if you want to embarrass the woman who was secretary of state at the time.

Even more preposterous, some Republicans on the farther fringes insinuate she was somehow to blame for the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic extremists, on the grounds that the State Department in 2012 refused to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation. Much difference it would have made. The group was so designated by her successor John Kerry six months ago, and look what happened.

But these ploys seem positively gentlemanly compared with the suggestion the other day by Karl Rove, George W Bush's old Svengali, that Clinton might be disqualified from the Oval Office because of "traumatic" brain damage caused by concussion during a fall at her home in December 2012, a few weeks before she left the State Department.

The insinuations hark back to the tactics used by Lee Atwater, Rove's late friend and mentor in the political dark arts who was the top campaign gun for both Ronald Reagan and the first president Bush. Infamously, Atwater once let it be known that a Democratic opponent of one of his clients had been treated for depression in his youth, when he was "hooked up to jumper cables".

Made more politely, Rove's point now would be perfectly legitimate. Presidents and would-be presidents haven't always been frank about their health, to put it mildly. Not so Lyndon Johnson, who proudly showed journalists the scar from his 1965 gall bladder surgery. But some of his predecessors have been much less forthcoming.

Back in 1893, Grover Cleveland disappeared from Washington on a "fishing trip", only for it to transpire that he had spent five days on a friend's yacht undergoing cancer surgery. Franklin Roosevelt was a dying man when he won a fourth term in November 1944, and Eisenhower had a heart attack and stroke while in office. As for JFK, he probably would never have been elected had Americans been told of his incurable Addison's disease. Today, the health of presidential candidates is minutely scrutinised. Clinton will be no exception, and rightly so.

For one thing, were she to run and win in 2016, she would be the second oldest incoming president in US history, after Reagan. And even now, there seem discrepancies in accounts of the aftermath of the December 2012 fall. Bill Clinton insists his wife is now in tip-top health, "in better shape than I am". Yet, he admitted last week, she had suffered a "terrible concussion", from which she needed six months to recover fully.

That version is somewhat at variance with the reassuring words of the State Department at the time. In fact, she spent three days in hospital (not an entire month as claimed by Rove) after a blood clot was discovered between her skull and her brain. One thing is clear from this back-and-forth. It's looking more likely that ever that Clinton will indeed keep her date with history two years hence.

All that's really missing is a formal announcement (although that can wait, given her 100 per cent name recognition among Americans). The polls make her a favourite, while a campaign organisation and an unequalled money machine, both reinforced by seasoned Obama operators from 2008 and 2012, is effectively in place, waiting only for the starter's gun.

After a long absence, the woman herself is doing fundraisers for other Democratic candidates, acquiring goodwill chits to be cashed in should she decide to run. She's even about to bring out the obligatory pre-campaign book, entitled Hard Choices. Ostensibly it's a memoir of her State Department years, but the Clinton camp is touting its "personal, human" bits – exactly the stuff of a candidate seeking not just admiration but love as well.

Nothing in politics is certain; just consider the untested neophyte, a year or two out of the Illinois state legislature, who upset the Clinton apple cart in 2008. This time, however, there's no obvious Barack Obama in sight, though a challenger from the Democrats' liberal wing could yet emerge. And after Obama, voters will be looking less for charismatic newcomers than for experience, precisely what she offers.

And the current Republican offensive may only make Americans more sympathetic to Clinton, as happened in the Lewinsky affair. You can't help admiring how she has weathered far worse controversy and adversity: not just her husband's "zipper problem" and attempted impeachment, but all that went before: from her part in Bill's failed health reform to the Whitewater affair. Yet she's survived everything.

If Republicans want to stop Clinton, they'd better find something truly new and truly scandalous. Good luck to them.