Clinton’s Achilles Heels

Feb 4, 2014 @ 12:29pm


Ben Smith has a real scoop here – getting Obama political aides to measure up Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In many ways, she’s astonishingly ascendant, as John Heilemann and I chew over in a new Deep Dish podcast – more ascendant than in 2007 – when she also seemed inevitable. But in other ways, her campaign now – relying again on massive support from Democratic constituencies and donors – is uncannily close to the campaign she ran last time. It relies on her name, her stature, and her gender. And it’s perfectly possible that she could run and win by the George W Bush model in 2000 – by simple and early overwhelming of the field.

But there are big liabilities to being the overwhelming front-runner in any primary race:

“The further out front the effort to elect Sec. Clinton is three years before election day, the greater the incentive is for the press, prospective opponents, and adversarial groups to scrutinize and attack her every move,” said Ben LaBolt, the national press secretary for the 2012 Obama campaign. “Even if it is a well-known candidate — sometimes more so — activists, donors, and voters like to see candidates fighting for every vote. If they start to feel like their power and influence is diminished it could have unforeseen consequences — we learned that lesson the hard way during the New Hampshire primary in 2008.”

Who knows? As John notes, almost all her potential rivals have effectively deferred to her. But nonetheless, there are, it seems to me, two weaknesses at the heart of her candidacy.

What are her defining issues? Will she run on Obamacare – ensuring its success? Will she run on climate change? Or protection of entitlements? How would her foreign policy differ from Obama’s? Until we get a sense of where she is headed as far as policy is concerned, she runs the risk of appearing as some kind of large juggernaut that simply has to be elected, well, just because. Maybe being the first woman president would render all these other issues moot. But at some point, she will have to enter the fray. I’m not sure she’s actually fully prepped for that. Her campaigning and speaking skills are not as impressive as Obama’s.

But more importantly for me is the inability of her supporters to answer a simple question. I was having dinner with a real Clinton fan the other night, and I actually stumped him (and he’s not easily stumped). What have been Hillary Clinton’s major, signature accomplishments in her long career in public life? What did she achieve in her eight years as First Lady exactly? What stamp did she put on national policy in her time as Senator from New York? What were her defining and singular achievements as secretary-of-state?

Maybe readers can answer those questions. I’m a little stumped. But more important: Clinton herself must have a ready answer to that question – an answer that can unify various elements of her career and make a coherent whole. My concern is that her name, history and gender have pushed that core question to one side. And her fiercely loyal coterie may be too much in the tank to see that these are questions non-groupies want answers to. But at some point, she better have a stronger answer than her supporters can currently provide.

(Photo: This February 6, 2013 photo illustration shows a woman viewing the new website of Hillary Clinton in Washington, DC. According to news reports, the website was registered on Thursday, just 24 hours before Clinton stepped down as America’s top diplomat, handing the baton to John Kerry.  By Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

Feb 5, 2014 @ 1:45pm

Ctd …

Yesterday I asked readers:

What have been Hillary Clinton’s major, signature accomplishments in her long career in public life? What did she achieve in her eight years as First Lady exactly? What stamp did she put on national policy in her time as Senator from New York? What were her defining and singular achievements as secretary-of-state?

One response:

Hmm. Let’s see, she was a senator for the 8 years while W was President. Not a lot of opportunity there, but if you look at her sponsored or co-sponsored legislation during that period, she was amazingly productive. (I’m sure she had some help, but still.) About her record as First Lady, she attempted a wholesale reform of healthcare and was beaten back by the Republicans – not an “accomplishment” perhaps, but her experience in this area would be invaluable as the ACA matures. And she served as Secretary of State during a challenging time – that is certainly an accomplishment in itself and gives her experience that no other candidate has.

Weak. Lame. Notice the absence of any specifics. Because there aren’t any:

The first thing that came to mind was her work, internationally, on human rights: particularly women’s and LGBT rights. Here’s her 2011 speech to the United Nations on LGBT rights. This was really important! To say these kinds of things to the international community matters, even when we’re still sorting out the details at home.  And she’s been doing this kind of thing since the beginning of her career in public life. Here’s her similarly historic speech as First Lady on women’s rights that she gave in China in the ’90s. I get that she doesn’t have a perfect track record on human rights, given US policy during her tenure as Secretary of State. That being said, it’s my opinion that women’s rights and LGBT rights have been her top priority whenever she’s had the chance.

There’s a difference between what she has said and what she has done. John Kerry has done more in one year than she managed in four at Foggy Bottom. A common retort from readers:

You ask for Hillary’s accomplishments? What does it matter? What were Barack Obama’s accomplishments in 2008? Voting against the Iraq War is not really a “major, singular accomplishment.” I think that being the first woman president along with her “long career in public life” will be enough.

But Obama had been in the national spotlight for only four years in 2008, while Clinton has had almost two decades to tally up specific accomplishments. She’s running on experience. And her record is close to invisible. Another reader:

Her signature issue, what she will run on, is her tenacity and defense of the Democratic principles. She will fight for her agenda, and it will be a classic Democratic agenda, but she will do so with the tenacity and will to win the President has not shown. The President is simply too willing to compromise and his default position is to be bipartisan. Clinton will be clearly and unabashedly partisan. She will be the Democratic’s Democratic. Honestly, if she needs to pull the still beating heart out of Chelsea’s chest on national television to pass a stimulus or extend unemployment insurance, I know she will do it. Essentially, her issue is she will kick Republican butt and not take prisoners.

Funny how I don’t remember the Clinton presidency as anything like that. Au contraire, actually. Another is more succinct:

Because, fuck Republicans. I need no other reason.  They’re going to hate and demonize whoever is occupying the Oval Office. Given that, I might as well have a president who will be fierce enough to fight back, who will take no prisoners, and who, to some extent, will probably deserve their hatred and fear. I want Clinton to brutalize them and make them think of 2008-2016 as the good ol days.

About that ferocity:

I would agree that her caution poses a real danger for her – something which can be gleaned in this NYT piece about AIPAC’s retreat on the Iran sanctions bill:

On Monday, 70 House Democrats sent Mr. Obama a letter backing his diplomatic efforts and opposing new sanctions. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton added her voice to those urging no legislation.

Clinton was silent on the AIPAC bill until it was safe for her to take a stand. A stand which – surprise! – is now the safe position within the Democratic establishment. For someone wanting to lead the country, this is (though characteristic of the Clintons) more than a little underwhelming.

But another reader liked her record in New York:

Two words for you: Bread and Butter. Hillary was my Senator, and I still remain impressed with her relatively quiet, modest, bread-and-butter focus. She was all over the GOP-leaning Upstate, where I am from, helping keep factories from moving, helping with Post 9/11 redevelopment in NY. She was a frequent visitor to Rochester, and was well-versed in the local economic issues (impressing my dad when he chatted with her at a small potatoes university engineering conference). She was really popular even in Republican areas, because she stayed away from the hot button issues, and just showed she cared about people of all stripes.

When you look at the Republicans running for Congress, it’s all about the big flashy issues, some of them popular, but how often do you ever hear of any of them actually helping people? Just like in Ohio in the last election for Obama, factory jobs trumped guns and God and race and all the rest of it. I mean, climate change, are you kidding me? Voters want better-paying jobs and growing economy. And as a woman, with the legacy of the Clinton economy, and a very successful small-bore bread-and-butter focus as a Senator, I think she is very well positioned.

Feb 5, 2014 @ 5:38pm

Ctd …

Drum agrees with me that Hillary’s achievements are underwhelming. He spots another possible weakness:

[B]y 2016 she will have been in the public eye for 24 years. That’s unprecedented. In the modern era, Richard Nixon holds the record for longest time in the public eye—about 20 years—before being elected president. The sweet spot is a little less than a decade. Longer than that and people just get tired of you. They want a fresh face. That’s largely what happened to Hillary in 2008, and it could happen again in 2016.

Carpenter’s misgivings:

I’m less concerned with Hillary’s rationale for running than I am for my own sanity. For the next three years she’ll play it safe on the ever-Clintonian middle ground, which for the last three years has been exhaustively played out by Obama. The reasons for the latter are many, and some are valid. My complaint about Hillary is that the exciting promise of new and aggressive management will be lacking.

Linker fears we’ll have a match-up between Jeb Bush and Clinton:

 Since 1980, when I was 11 years old, a Bush or a Clinton has run for president or vice president in eight out of nine contests (with Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign being the only exception). Unless Hillary Clinton surprises everyone, 2016 is guaranteed to make it nine out of 10, which is bad enough. But the idea of the Republicans running a third Bush against her — it’s almost too much to bear.

Or rather, it’s almost enough to make me wonder why we don’t just scrap the pretense of the United States being a democracy at all and instead embrace the truth — that, at least when it comes to the nation’s highest office, we’re now a nepotistic oligarchy.

It’s a national embarrassment.

Feb 6, 2014 @ 12:17pm

Clinton Fatigue?

Drum is worried about it. I’m already exhausted. Masket is unconcerned:

Is there any evidence that voters “get tired” of politicians? I don’t want to get into the whole literature on what governs presidential elections, but the simple answer is no. Candidates tend to Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting In New Yorkdo better if the economy is growing while their party holds the White House (or if the economy is drowning while the other party holds it). Prolonged wars can hurt their party, as can perceived ideological extremism. But overexposure?

The big case here would be Ronald Reagan, who did his first film in 1937, 43 years before getting elected president. (Okay, maybe he wasn’t “in the public eye” until “Knute Rockne All American” in 1940, but still.) But Drum discounts Reagan’s film career, so maybe we shouldn’t start the clock until Reagan begins doing his conservative speeches for General Electric in the late 1950s. That’s still over two decades before becoming president. His record warning about the dangers of Medicare was recorded in 1961. And keep in mind that in 1984, after being in the public eye for nearly half a century, Reagan won one of the biggest Electoral College landslides in history.

But before he got the nomination, he’d never been the Establishment front-runner with a 50 point lead over his nearest rival. The problem for Clinton is that a) she’s not a very compelling public speaker or shrewd campaigner (she was handed the New York Senate seat on a nepotistic platter and got creamed by an upstart in 2008); b) she has close to no record of substantive achievements at any point, as First Lady, Senator and secretary of state; and more critically c) she is perched on an impossibly high pedestal which all but cries out for someone to knock her off it – either in the primaries or the general.

I think she may be the weakest and the strongest candidate for 2016. I don’t think that’s a great combination for a campaign.

(Photo by Getty)

Feb 6, 2014 @ 1:38pm

Clinton’s Achilles Heels, Ctd

Hillary Clinton Addresses National Automobile Dealers Association Convention

A reader gets more specific than the previous one on Clinton’s record in New York:

According to my research at GovTrack, during her time as a Senator Hillary Clinton sponsored three bills that become law. They were:

S. 3145 “A bill to designate a portion of United States Route 20a, located in Orchard Park, New York, as the Timothy J. Russert Highway.”

S. 3613 “A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2951 New York Highway 43 in Averill Park, New York, as the “Major George Quamo Post Office Building”

S. 1248 “Kate Mullany National Historic Site Act”

She renamed a road, a Post Office, and created a National Historic Site dedicated to a labor leader. Not exactly a huge body of work.

Weak. Lame. Another reader:

The responses to your query about Hillary are so depressing. I’m a woman and a huge capital-F Feminist, and I refuse to support someone JUST BECAUSE she’s a woman. That’s the stupidest, lamest, most self-defeating thing ever. I want to support someone who is the best person for the job, and hey, if that person is a woman, bonus! My early support for Obama was mostly about Obama, but secondarily because Hillary was emerging as the front-runner and that worried me. A lot.

I followed the 2008 race very carefully, for both personal and professional reasons. I read probably four hours’ worth a day of campaign coverage. (That’s how I found the Dish by the way – you’d keep coming up in searches early on, when not many other people were writing about Obama.) Hillary’s campaign was a MESS, in a way that reflected very badly upon her as an executive.

I don’t know who will emerge as the Democratic candidate in 2016 – I don’t see a lot of great options right now. But I really, really hope it won’t be Hillary, for two reasons. One, I don’t think she would be a good candidate. Two, and more importantly, I don’t think she would be a good president.

Another questions the premise of the discussion:

Do we really need a president (or candidate) that has a string of successes on “signature issues?” No. What we need is an effective management from someone who can bring together both sides to advance the business of this country. Although we seem to have forgotten, that is what government is ultimately about. Success on big-focus policy issues in this day and age comes from narrow partisan achievements in one-sided political climates (See, e.g., Perry in TX, Walker in WI) or sacrifices overall improvement for narrow advancement (See, e.g., the Obama White House in the last year). The country is in desperate need of a president who believes in the value of good government and tries to, and can, improve the overall effectiveness of government for all people, rather than tear it down and rebuild it in some esoteric image. Now I’m no Hillary apologist (I voted for Obama, twice), but she seems like the type to advance the mission and effectiveness of government rather than focus it on myopic “policy initiatives”.

Another is on the same page:

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what her specific legislative/political/personal accomplishments are. A push-back against criticism of Obama is often (and I believe fairly), that he is merely the executive leg of a system of government. Our system of government is built to have checks and balances, and unless he or she has (super)majorities in Congress and the Senate, the President is never in a position to unilaterally impose their will or agenda. Again, this is something that gets brought up on places like this very website to produce a defense of Obama. He’s in charge of setting a tone and pushing an agenda, but sometimes that’s all that he can do.

So maybe Hillary’s specific accomplishments aren’t even the most important part of her resume. Maybe her status is indeed more important. As other’s have said, she is likely to be a little more of a fighter than Obama. She’s extremely popular and a well-liked figure. If she can set a tone that allows Democrats in Congress and the Senate to push Immigration Reform/Climate Change proposals/gun control/expand health care, and other items, then I think most Democrats who vote for her will be very happy.

Another takes it one step further:

I believe part of Hillary’s appeal lies in the precise fact that she does NOT have a signature accomplishment. After the failings of the Obama administration in the activity of governing (think the botched healthcare rollout, inability to effectively engage Congress), I think people are looking for someone who will be a competent administrator, without all sorts of new flashy policies. Clinton’s appeal is that she seems to be on top of her portfolio and can manage the details of governing, even without big accomplishments to point to. And part of this has to do with Obama’s own failings – after voters saw such promise in him during the 2008 election, the intervening period has really taken away the magic of his “change” message. Perhaps, in the end, Clinton’s 2008 approach of emphasizing “experience” over “change” is what will allow her to win in 2016.

And to Democrats, this has particular appeal. After 8 years of the Obama presidency, they are going to be seeking someone to lock in and secure the changes he has made – particularly with regard to healthcare and executive branch policies on things such as the environment and military policy. A Clinton presidency which can competently administer these policies will make it even harder for them to be rolled back at a later date.

Yep, that’s the strongest case for Democrats: that she’ll basically entrench Obama’s legacy the way George H.W. Bush did Reagan’s. By doing nothing.

(Photo: Former U.S. Seceratary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the 10th National Automobile Dealers Association Convention on January 27, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to reports, Clinton said during a question and answer session at the convention that the biggest regret was the attack on Americans in Benghazi. By Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2014 @ 4:30pm

Quote For The Day

“It is fair to wonder if Hillary Clinton learned the lesson of the health-care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and Hillary Clinton Addresses National Automobile Dealers Association Conventioncompromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform—willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it—with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no crusading causes—by her own tacit admission, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains.

Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn’t have much to say,” – Josh Green, Atlantic, 2006.

Feb 7, 2014 @ 11:22am

Clinton Fatigue, Ctd

Well, maybe here is the case to be made for Hillary:

The authors describe her State Department leadership as strong but not dazzling: a “workmanlike Hillary Clinton Addresses National Automobile Dealers Association Conventionenhancement of diplomacy and development” with “deliverables” that were real but not high-profile — no “marquee peace deal,” for example. But she elevated the stature of State, which lost influence to the CIA and Pentagon during the years when two wars dominated the foreign policy landscape. She worked to win over her employees, fighting for budget increases and going to bat for Foggy Bottom bike commuters. As a member of the Cabinet, she brought star power and a venerable understanding of Washington’s “levers of power.”

MichiKak puts it this way:

“To the disappointment of even some of her most ardent supporters,” Ms. Parnes and Mr. Allen write, “Hillary’s legacy is not one of negotiating marquee peace deals or a new doctrine defining American foreign policy. Instead, it is in the workmanlike enhancement of diplomacy and development, alongside defense, in the exertion of American power, and it is in competent leadership of a massive government bureaucracy.”

That’s the pitch: competent leadership of the federal government, unrivaled work ethic, and experience in the ways of Washington. That’s how she both represents a continuation of Obama’s legacy, but with more schmoozing/bullshitting/politicking experience. Plus Bill.

Feb 11, 2014 @ 11:02am

Clinton’s Achilles Heels, Ctd

Readers keep the recent thread going:

OK, you have a fair point that Hillary Clinton does not have a clearly defined, very specific record of accomplishment that she can point to as justification for being POTUS. Fine. Now, can you please point to a president who DID have such a record?Hillary Clinton Addresses National Automobile Dealers Association Convention

George W. Bush? What did he accomplish as governor of Texas, or, for that matter, in any area of his life? Bill Clinton? He was governor of Arkansas, but I have no idea what he did in that job, and I worked on his transition team in 1992 (all I did was answer his mail, but I was there). George H. W. Bush? He had a resume longer than Hillary’s, but, again, I can’t think of any notable accomplishments. Reagan? Nixon? Kennedy? About the only president who I can think of who had a great resume before becoming president was Eisenhower. Heck, Lincoln hadn’t done much before 1860.

Another focuses on one president in particular:

In your discussion of Hillary Clinton’s major accomplishments, there is one name that I think is remarkably comparable and am surprised that has not been mentioned: George HW Bush. In 2016, Hillary will be selling exactly what Bush was selling in 1988: competence and experience. Both have long records of public service and a record of competence yet few signature accomplishments. In fact, their pre-presidential resumes are remarkably similar. Whereas Bush had eight years of experience in the White House as Vice President, Hillary has eight years in the White House as First Lady. In fact, given how marginalized Bush was in the Reagan administration, Hillary probably had more policy influence on her husband’s administration than Bush did with Reagan.

Bush spent a total of 1482 days in the ’70s as CIA Director, Envoy to China and UN Ambassador. Clinton spent 1472 days as Secretary of State. Bush spent four years as Congressman from Texas, whereas Clinton spent eight as Senator. Bush always had a problem with the “vision thing.” Clinton seems to as well. Both lost bitter presidential primaries to more charismatic rivals, then they went to work for the man who defeated them. Both served admirably as competent, effective government employees without racking up signature accomplishments. Hillary probably has a more impressive record overall as compared to Bush, yet in 2016 Hillary will essentially be selling the same thing as Bush did in ’88 – a continuation and consolidation of their predecessor’s administration against an opposition party that had failed miserably to reform itself after two crushing losses.

Another notes:

Yes, Linker points out an often overlooked fact that the Clintons and Bushes are making American democracy seem like a bizarrely royal affair. But it gets worse: if you include the Doles, well then the Republicans alone have nominated either a Bush or a Dole on the presidential ticket for 28 consecutive years! Add in the Clintons and we can expect 40 consecutive years of presidential contests between the Clintons, Bushes and Doles, with the empty 2012 election campaign as the only exception. If Jeb or Hillary wins a second term, I will have lived from the age of 9 until age 57 with just three political families vying for the White House.

1976: Ford/Dole

1980: Reagan/Bush

1984: Reagan/ Bush

1988: Bush/Quayle

1992: Clinton/Gore v. Bush/Quayle

1996: Clinton/Gore v. Dole/Kemp

2000: Gore v. Bush (Elizabeth Dole defeated in primaries)

2004: Bush v. Kerry

2008: Obama v. McCain (Hillary Clinton defeated in primaries)

2012: Obama v. Romney

2016: Bush v. Clinton ??

Update from a reader:

Your reader points out that the Republican ticket had a Bush or Dole for 28 consecutive years (actually 8 consecutive tickets). But it gets even worse if you throw in Nixon. The GOP had Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, or a George Bush on every ticket from 1952 to 2004 – except once, in 1964 (Goldwater/Miller):

1952 – Eisenhower/Nixon
1956 – Eisenhower/Nixon
1960 – Nixon/Lodge
1964 – Goldwater/Miller
1968 – Nixon/Agnew
1972 – Nixon/Agnew

And then onward to the present. That’s 13 out of 14 tickets with Nixon, Dole or a Bush.

(Photo: Former U.S. Seceratary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the 10th National Automobile Dealers Association Convention on January 27, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. By Sean Gardner/Getty Images)