Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

A Unified Theory of Hillary A Unified Theory of Hillary

This ad will end in seconds
Close X

Want access to this content? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation


Not a member? Forgot your password?

A Unified Theory of Hillary

+(Photo illustration by Sean McCabe)

A Unified Theory of Hillary

To understand what kind of president she would be, consider that her greatest successes and worst failures have the same explanation.


On November 3, 1973, Hillary Clinton, then 26 years old, learned that she had failed the Washington, D.C., bar exam. The news, notes biographer Carl Bernstein, broke a streak of "almost uninterrupted [academic] success" dating back to her childhood in suburban Chicago. Even stranger, two-thirds of the applicants who took the exam that year passed, though few possessed Hillary's stellar academic credentials.

For 30 years, Hillary didn't publicly mention the incident, before implying in her first autobiography, Living History, that subconsciously she had wanted to fail. "I had taken both the Arkansas and Washington, D.C., bar exams during the summer, but my heart was pulling me toward Arkansas," she wrote. "When I learned that I passed in Arkansas but failed in D.C., I thought that maybe my test scores were telling me something."


But there may be more to it than that. Hillary prepared for the bar, as had decades of students before her, by taking a review course taught by a stocky, crusty, Italian immigrant named Joseph Nacrelli. Then in his 70s, Nacrelli knew the D.C. exam intimately, in part because of his ties to the local lawyers who prepared and graded it.

In 1973, however, the exam changed. Instead of writing essays about local D.C. law, students spent one of the exam's two days answering multiple-choice questions about "multistate" law: legal principles common across the country. "My understanding is that Nacrelli was not teaching [the multistate material] or not teaching it well," Georgetown University professor Sherman Cohn, who ran a rival course built around the new exam, told me. A student who took Cohn's course that summer but whose roommate took Nacrelli's recalls that "Nacrelli seemed past his sell-by date. He just wasn't teaching to the right exam." A Harvard Law School graduate named David S. Fishback grew so alarmed by the way Nacrelli was preparing students for the constitutional-law portion of the multistate section that he and a friend decamped to the library to study it on their own.

(Photo illustration by Sean McCabe)It's impossible to know for sure why Hillary failed. (When I asked Philippe Reines, Hillary's media guru, he wasn't familiar with the incident.) But in their mostly flattering book, HRC, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes offer a plausible theory: Hillary was "a great student," but she "didn't have the vision to see the trouble some of her peers identified and adjusted for."

Does this ancient, obscure episode have any bearing on what kind of president Hillary Clinton would be? It just might. This spring, I immersed myself in the vast literature about Hillary's life and career. The more I read, the more I became convinced that she possesses some of the qualities most necessary for presidential success. But if she struggles, there's reason to suspect it will be for the same reason she appears to have struggled with the D.C. bar exam in 1973. She's terrific at developing and executing a well-defined plan. She's less adept at realizing that a well-defined plan is not working and improvising something new. Single-mindedness is both her greatest strength and greatest flaw.

AT BEST, HILLARY CLINTON could be the Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama's John F. Kennedy: the tough-minded successor who achieves what their more charismatic, but less politically savvy, predecessor could not. The analogy has its limits, of course. Johnson mastered Congress—at a time when Congress was easier to master—in ways no president could today. But Hillary could prove to be a more effective inside-Washington player than any White House Democrat since LBJ.


Partly, that's because she and her advisers would enter the White House with far more Washington experience than Jimmy Carter in 1977, Bill Clinton in 1993, or Barack Obama in 2009. (At the start of the Clinton administration, not a single domestic policy staffer had ever worked in the White House before.) It's also because, if Hillary does win the White House, the agony of having lost it three times straight may make the GOP more willing to compromise on issues such as immigration and taxes than it is today.

But, just as important, Hillary will be able to draw on a combination of political gifts that set her apart from both her husband and Obama. Hillary's major advantage over Bill is her mental toughness. In her recently released papers, Hillary's late friend Diane Blair recounts a 1994 conversation in which Hillary was "furious" that Bill "can't fire people, exert discipline, punish leakers." Throughout his presidency, Bill had trouble making decisions, in part because he had trouble telling people things they didn't want to hear. By contrast, Hillary, even as an undergraduate at Wellesley, was "notably direct in almost everything she did," Bernstein writes. (Including her famed decision to approach Bill in the Yale Law School library after she spotted him eyeing her.) She went on to play the same role in his campaigns that George W. Bush played in his father's: She handled problems the candidate could not, or would not. Bernstein quotes a campaign staffer in Arkansas who recalls that she "was the one that laid the law down." According to a frequent White House visitor quoted in Elizabeth Drew's On the Edge: The Clinton Presidency, Hillary was "the closer."

That required an ability to make difficult decisions and shrewdly assess the motives and power of both adversaries and allies. "She has much more ability than he does to see who's with you, who's against you, and to make sure they don't take advantage of you," Rudy Moore, who managed Bill Clinton's first campaign for governor of Arkansas, has said. Indeed, several chroniclers suggest that Hillary's tight-knit, hard-edged, ultra-loyal staff more closely resembles the Bush team than Bill's more transient, fractious crew.

If Hillary's primary edge over her husband is her mental toughness, her biggest advantage over Obama is her skill in cultivating political relationships.

From their days in Arkansas, Hillary took the lead in combating the scandalmongers who threatened Bill's career. Her default position was single-minded and relentless. She repeatedly urged her husband's advisers to meet attacks on Bill's character by going after the character of his opponents. (According to Bernstein, in 1992 she urged the campaign to fan rumors about George H.W. Bush's infidelity.) It was Hillary who called in Dick Morris when Bill was losing his bid for reelection as governor in 1980, and who became Morris's point of contact when the Clintons entered the White House. According to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.'s biography Her Way, when a liberal Arkansas staffer objected to Morris's presence, Hillary responded, "If you want to be in this kind of business, this is the kind of person you have to deal with."

Hillary's mental toughness also helped her prove resilient in defeat. After traumatic setbacks, Bill periodically succumbed to depression and bouts of reckless irresponsibility. Too distraught to deliver a concession speech on the night he was defeated for reelection as governor, he sent Hillary out to address the crowd. Bernstein quotes Arkansas friend Deborah Sale, who recalls that "it was unbelievably devastating. He just thought it was the end of his life." Hillary, meanwhile, called Morris within days to begin plotting Bill's comeback. After the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Bill again went into a funk, and later began his affair with Monica Lewinsky. It was Hillary who helped direct the attack on independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a right-wing zealot, an attack that strengthened Democratic opposition to the impeachment crusade.

If Hillary's primary edge over her husband is her mental toughness, her biggest advantage over Obama is her skill in cultivating political relationships. Her success in this area almost certainly owes something to her single-mindedness as well. More than Obama, she grasps the value of rewarding one's supporters and paying attention to people whose support you may need down the line.


In Obama's first five years in office, David Remnick has noted, the president played golf with his body man Marvin Nicholson over 100 times and with House Speaker John Boehner once. "When you don't build those personal relationships," Sen. Joe Manchin told CNN, "it's pretty easy for a person to say, 'Well, let me think about it' " when asked to vote for a bill.

Saying that to Hillary is harder because she nurtures alliances in a way Obama does not. In the Senate, according to Gerth and Van Natta, she won over aides by remembering their names and birthdays, and older senators by making herself their star pupil. When she withdrew from the 2008 presidential race, Allen and Parnes report, her staff sent 16,054 personalized thank-you notes to key supporters. And upon agreeing to become Obama's secretary of State, she won the right to fill many appointed posts with her loyalists, which meant that, ironically, the foreign policy hands who had backed her losing candidacy often fared better than those who had supported Obama's.

Hillary will never be the orator Obama is, and how well she'd rally the public to her side in policy disputes is an open question. But inside the Beltway, she'd likely do a better job of both rewarding her friends and making people fear being her enemy. After red-state Democratic senators torpedoed Obama's push for new gun-control measures early last year, former Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota told The New York Times, "There have been very few consequences for those [senators who] defeat the legislation." In a Hillary presidency, there likely would be consequences. Bernstein quotes Bob Boorstin, who oversaw communications for Hillary's health care task force, on how Bill and Hillary differ: "He gets angry, and he gets over it. She gets angry, and she remembers it forever." In HRC, Allen and Parnes point out that, in 2012, Bill Clinton repeatedly intervened in Democratic primaries to help candidates who had backed Hillary against rivals who had backed Obama—thus reminding Democrats that even when Hillary loses, opposing her carries a price.

(Photo illustration by Sean McCabe)Hillary's greatest triumphs have come when she has combined these political skills with her passion for public policy, her formidable analytical ability, and her near-legendary work ethic. As Michael Tomasky notes in Hillary's Turn, she won over skeptical voters in upstate New York in her 2000 Senate race by outhustling Rudy Giuliani and then Rick Lazio—she visited Buffalo alone 26 times—and mastering the local issues that bored the Manhattan-based press corps but mattered to actual voters. According to Allen and Parnes, Hillary astonished a staffer preparing her for her confirmation hearings as secretary of State by not only reading the 300-page binder she had been given for the night, but marking up its final pages. A Senate adviser told Gerth and Van Natta that studying "relaxes her."

One little-remembered episode illustrates Hillary's ability to craft and execute well-defined plans. After returning to the Arkansas Governor's Mansion in 1983, Bill made her chairwoman of his Education Standards Committee. Faced with one of the worst education systems in the country, whose funding mechanism had just been ruled unconstitutional, Hillary convened 75 meetings across the state and digested massive quantities of information. According to Bernstein, her testimony before a joint committee of the Arkansas Legislature proved so dazzling that one legislator remarked, "It looks like we might have elected the wrong Clinton."

Moreover, she hatched—and stuck to—a shrewd strategy for getting education reform passed. Hillary knew that to reduce the state's student-teacher ratio, improve its math and science curriculum, and require mandatory kindergarten, she'd need to raise taxes, which conservatives would oppose. But Dick Morris's polling suggested that the public was more open to a tax hike if it were twinned with teacher testing. (The New Democratic formula that Bill Clinton would later champion on welfare reform was already clear: More government money in return for tougher government demands.) Many Arkansas teachers loathed the testing plan, but, as Bernstein recounts, villainizing their union as a self-interested defender of the status quo only made Hillary's reforms more popular. How much those reforms improved Arkansas schools is a subject of debate. Hillary's political savvy and single-minded determination in getting them passed is not.

Bob Boorstin on how Bill and Hillary differ: "He gets angry, and he gets over it. She gets angry, and she remembers it forever."

IN HER EDUCATION reform campaign in Arkansas, Hillary forged the operating style that she applied to health care reform in Washington: Master the information; keep tight control; demonize your opponents. When Bill appointed her to chair the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform five days after his inauguration, Hillary again threw herself into the policy minutiae. Longtime Clinton friend Ira Magaziner divided the task force into 34 committees, composed of 500 governmental and outside experts, and Hillary spent hundreds of hours in meetings, absorbing their work. Yet again, her grasp of the subject matter awed legislators. In September 1993, amid three days of testimony in front of five congressional committees, she so impressed gruff House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski that he quipped, "In the very near future, the president will be known as your husband."

There are many reasons the Clinton health care reform effort failed, most of which have little to do with Hillary. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd refused to attach health care reform to the 1993 budget bill, which would have shielded it from filibuster, and by the time the president's tax-hiking, deficit-reducing budget passed Congress, Democrats were loath to take another tough vote. Congressional liberals resented the White House's refusal to back a single-payer plan. Labor did, too, and was doubly aggrieved about the administration's push for the North American Free Trade Agreement. A recovering economy reduced public demand for health care reform. Two powerful allies, Rostenkowski and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen, were both succeeded by less effective chairmen during the reform fight. Most important, a seismic right-ward shift within the GOP led Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and other key congressional Republicans to oppose even reforms they had once endorsed.

But there was another factor, too: Hillary's failure to see that her model, which she had developed in Arkansas, was not working and needed to be altered midstream. As in Arkansas, Hillary—now aided by Magaziner—kept tight control of the process. At task force meetings, Bernstein notes, participants were forbidden from copying draft documents or, in many cases, even taking notes. The secrecy alienated not only members of Congress, health care activists, and the press, but key figures in the Clinton administration as well. Hillary and Magaziner both knew a great deal about health care policy. But neither knew as much about health care politics as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, or Office of Management and Budget Director Leon Panetta. Yet because of the task force's secrecy, and because they feared directly confronting the president's wife, Bentsen, Panetta, Shalala, and others in the administration often felt marginalized. As Haynes Johnson and David Broder document in The System—their indispensable book on the health care battle—Clinton officials angered by their lack of influence repeatedly leaked damaging information to a press corps angered by its lack of access.

Her political failure lay in her inability to see how dramatically the center of gravity in her party was shifting away from her point of view.

As policy, the proposal that Hillary and Magaziner helped craft possessed considerable merit. But, politically, it was a hard sell. Its complexity made it difficult to explain to a public besieged by health care industry scare tactics. And it lacked buy-in from key stakeholders. "Who's going to be for this?" Panetta cried, according to Johnson and Broder. Shalala, writes Elizabeth Drew, warned Magaziner that "you're developing a negative coalition. This program will turn off liberals and conservatives; no one will be enthusiastic. All the interest groups will be mad."

The harsh reality was that Bill Clinton—who had won with only 43 percent of the vote and quickly saw his presidential honeymoon cut short by the Whitewater "scandal" and the gays-in-the-military debacle—lacked the power to achieve his and Hillary's cherished goal of universal health coverage, at least in the near term. Johnson and Broder argue that once Byrd refused to attach health care reform to the budget bill, which would have allowed it to pass with 51 rather than 60 votes in the Senate, the Clintons had only one way to avoid outright defeat: Embrace the more modest reforms being peddled by congressional moderates such as Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper and Republican Sen. John Chafee.

In September 1993, White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty and Counselor David Gergen proposed doing exactly that. But Hillary resisted switching course, and she and Magaziner won the day. In his State of the Union address the following January—at Hillary's urging and over Gergen's opposition—Bill pledged to veto any health care bill that did not provide universal health coverage, even though key figures in his own party already believed that was the only kind of health care bill Congress would pass.

The White House's refusal to scale back its ambitions left a more powerful coalition of opponents to confront. And when Hillary proposed vilifying opponents, as she had done to the teachers unions in Arkansas, key congressional Democrats were appalled. According to Bernstein, current MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell—who during the reform effort was Daniel Patrick Moynihan's top aide on the Senate Finance Committee—said her talk of " 'demonizing' colored [Moynihan's] perception of Hillary, and how she operated, for the rest of his life."

President and first lady Clinton leave Foundry United Methodist Church in 1994. (Getty Images)George Stephanopoulos would later reflect that "the plan, like the woman who guided it, was ambitious, idealistic, and highly logical" but "also inflexible." Part of the problem was the fierce culture of loyalty within her inner circle, which prevented aides from warning her that her strategy was going awry. (Magaziner himself was a longtime Clinton friend, not someone with an independent base in Washington.) Gerth and Van Natta quote then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, who noted that working with "a group of people, all of whom were off in the same direction … she got isolated." Johnson and Broder cite a senior White House staffer who bemoaned that during the health care fight, Hillary's aides "managed to build wall after wall around the first lady."

IF HILLARY'S FAILURE to improvise contributed to the demise of health care reform, it also contributed to her greatest foreign policy blunder—her support for the Iraq War—and her subsequent loss to Barack Obama in 2008.

As with health care reform, Hillary's transition from first lady to elected official relied on a clear plan, a key component of which was: Disprove the caricature of herself as a left-wing radical (an effort made easier by the fact that the caricature had never been remotely true). In her New York Senate race, Tomasky notes, Hillary ran to Rudy Giuliani's right on abortion: She supported parental-notification laws; he did not. In the Senate, she cosponsored legislation with former impeachment champion Sam Brownback to study the effects of mass media on children and hired a staffer to reach out to abortion foes.

After September 11, when the public debate turned ultra-hawkish and George W. Bush's approval ratings skyrocketed, being perceived as tough on national security became a Hillary obsession. To chalk up her hawkishness solely to political calculation, however, would be wrong. Like many in her husband's administration, she had become more comfortable with military force during the 1990s. As first lady, Hillary struck up a friendship with fellow Wellesley graduate Madeleine Albright and successfully lobbied Bill to make the United Nations ambassador his second-term secretary of State. Like Albright, Hillary took the hawkish side in internal debates over force, recounting in her memoir her support for military intervention in both Bosnia and Kosovo. Gerth and Van Natta note that in 2003, when challenged by activists outraged that the U.S. might invade Iraq without United Nations approval, Hillary responded by referencing "Kosovo, where my husband could not get a U.N. resolution to save the Kosovar Albanians. … We had to do it alone."

For Hillary, who has called George McGovern's landslide defeat in 1972 her "first rite of [political] passage," and who in the 1980s watched her party's presidential nominees eviscerated by Ronald Reagan, the perils of foreign policy weakness were obvious. During her husband's presidency, she realized that military toughness could be not only good politics but also good policy.

A Hillary Clinton presidency might be more stylistically akin to that of George W. Bush.  (Getty Images)Almost as soon as the twin towers fell, Hillary began staking out positions on the right edge of her party. On Sept. 12, from the floor of the Senate, she warned—in language similar to George W. Bush's—that regimes that "in any way aid or comfort [terrorists] whatsoever will now face the wrath of our country." As Gerth and Van Natta detailed, Hillary did not just vote to authorize war with Iraq—something most other nationally ambitious Democrats did as well—she justified her vote by citing Saddam Hussein's ties to al-Qaida, a claim echoed by only one other Senate Democrat, Joe Lieberman.

Even once it became clear that governing postwar Iraq would be far harder than the Bush administration had predicted, Hillary gave little ground. In a December 2003 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she called her Iraq decision "the right vote" and insisted that "failure is not an option." As late as February 2005, when Iraq was already in civil war, she drew attention to the "many parts of Iraq that are functioning quite well" and warned that it "would be a mistake" to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.

In bucking her party's liberal base, Hillary almost certainly believed she was doing the right thing. She was "cursed," she declared, when explaining her refusal to join John Edwards's 2007 call for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, "with the responsibility gene." Hillary's intellectual failure lay in her inability to recognize that the definition of "responsibility" she had developed during the 1990s, with its emphasis on American freedom of action and the utility of military force, was being abused and misapplied in Iraq. Her political failure lay in her inability to see how dramatically the center of gravity in her party was shifting away from her point of view.

As the situation in Iraq went south, liberal activists—enraged at the Democratic Party's ideologically hawkish, politically submissive leaders—launched an intraparty rebellion. The first sign came in 2003, when blogs like Daily Kos and activist groups like powered Howard Dean's stunning insurgency against a field of Washington Democrats who had backed the war. Yet during that period, Hillary and her top advisers were remarkably slow to recognize that the ground was shifting underneath their feet, and that the centrist strategy they had laid out at the beginning of her Senate career was now dangerously outdated.

Her "tunnel vision" might produce a presidency more stylistically akin to that of George W. Bush.

A key symptom of this failure was Hillary's decision to give Mark Penn, the chief strategist behind her 2000 New York Senate campaign, the same role in her presidential run. Penn, in the words of a New York Times Magazine profile, was such "a true believer in the New Democrat approach" that it undermined "the credibility of his political work among his fellow pollsters." In 2004, he had advised Lieberman's presidential candidacy, and, according to Michael Crowley writing in The New Republic, told Lieberman that history would vindicate his vote for war. By 2006, Lieberman had fallen to a Dean-like insurgent in the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut. Yet there is no evidence that this shook Penn's core analysis that Hillary should run for the Democratic nomination with one eye planted on the general election, where the real threat to her presidential ambitions supposedly lay.

In retrospect, it is extraordinary that at a time when the "netroots" were remaking the Democratic Party, Hillary put her fate in the hands of a consultant who not only discounted their influence but loathed them. "The brie-and-cheese set"—Penn's epithet for liberal activists—"drives fundraising and elite press but does not drive the vote," he wrote in a December 2006 campaign memo. At a conference in Aspen, Colo., that same year, according to Gerth and Van Natta, Arianna Huffington challenged Penn over Hillary's support for a bill criminalizing desecration of the flag, a move that to some liberals epitomized her refusal to stand on principle for fear of being attacked by the Right. "You know what?" Penn shot back. "She doesn't care what you think."

To be fair, changing strategy would have been tricky. Penn was understandably worried that if Hillary admitted her vote to authorize the war had been a mistake, she would invite the "flip-flop" attack that had damaged John Kerry. But while she may have had no good way to discuss her Iraq vote, Hillary could have at least signaled to angry liberals that she would act differently on Iran. Instead, she picked a fight over Obama's willingness to meet Tehran's leaders without preconditions, a fight that to many liberals confirmed that Obama would change Bush foreign policy while Hillary represented more of the same.

Mark Penn was the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential run. (Getty Images)More broadly, Hillary's campaign failed to adequately recognize that her Iraq vote had convinced many liberals that she lacked the courage of her convictions. As an actress playing Hillary quipped on Saturday Night Live in January 2007, "I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere." In that environment, Hillary's unwillingness to embrace controversial liberal causes for fear that they'd be used against her in the general election became a character issue. Arguably, the key moment in Hillary's demise came at a Drexel University debate on Oct. 30, when she refused to forthrightly endorse New York state's plan to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and was slammed by her opponents and the press for trying to have it both ways. Eleven days later, in perhaps his most important speech of the primary campaign, Obama wowed a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa, declaring that "not answering questions because we are afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do." At a time when Democratic primary voters were hungry for authenticity and backbone, Penn's efforts to inoculate Hillary against right-wing attack convinced many liberals that she lacked both.

Ironically, as John Heilemann and Mark Halperin note in Game Change, most of the other key figures in Hillary's campaign were devout liberals who disliked Penn almost as much as activists outside the campaign did. But in a replay of the dynamic within Hillary's inner circle during the health care fiasco, they feared bluntly telling her she was on the wrong path.

NONE OF THIS is to suggest that Hillary would be an ineffective president—only that her successes and failures would look different from Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's. Bill's failures often owed to indiscipline. Obama's have stemmed in part from aloofness. If past is prologue, Hillary's would stem in significant measure from unwillingness to change course. Hillary does learn from her mistakes. But only after the damage is done.

Her successes as president, on the other hand, would likely result from the kind of hands-on, methodical, unyielding drive that both Bill Clinton and Obama struggled to sustain. In her wonkishness and her moderate liberalism, Hillary has much in common with Obama and her husband. But her "tunnel vision"—in the words of a close friend quoted in Sally Bedell Smith's For Love of Politics—might produce a presidency more stylistically akin to that of George W. Bush. For years now, Democrats have yearned for a leader who champions their causes with the same single-minded, supremely confident, unwavering intensity that they believe Republican leaders bring to theirs. For better and worse, they may soon get their wish.

This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as A Unified Theory of Hillary.


He Shall Not Be Moved