When Hillary Clinton ran for president, Edward Snowden was still working in obscurity for the CIA. Drones were discussed as deterrents against illegal immigrants, not as counterterrorism killing machines. Lehman Brothers hadn't gone bust, and neither had the global economy.
So much has happened since Clinton quit the race on June 7, 2008; and her tenure as secretary of State plus a year away from public office has allowed her to avoid fervid political debates.
Even issues well trod by Clinton, such as gun control and health care, have taken on new context in the wake of Newtown and Obamacare. And unlike other potential presidential candidates who currently hold office and frequently deal with reporters, Clinton weighs in on the issues of the day only sporadically. When she was America's chief diplomat, it would have been inappropriate for her to comment on politics. Now a private citizen, she doesn't have to.
So when the National Security Agency was found to be spying on foreign leaders, the former secretary of State was mum. Americans cringed recently on learning that Clinton hasn't driven a car since 1996 but can only guess at the former senator's views on fracking in New York, her home state. Her position on Obama's executive order delaying deportation of children brought to this country illegally? Who knows?
"She's not a candidate, so we haven't sat around the table and said, 'OK, what do you think about these issues?' "said Kiki McLean, a senior adviser to Clinton during her 2008 campaign. "When she does weigh in, she does so from a very thoughtful and educated point of view."
The gap in Clinton's public record between her first presidential campaign and the moment if and when she launches a second one offers both opportunity and risk. Opportunity for a baggage-laden veteran to reintroduce herself to voters and reposition herself to be more appealing to the rising populist Left. Risk, in that critics will scrutinize the reintroduction and repositioning for flip-flops.
"If she makes a dramatic jump to the left on these hot-button issues from where she was in 2008, then it's going to be seen as a really craven political move," said Tim Miller, executive director of the Republican super PAC America Rising. "Voters already think she's too partisan and too political, so this is a danger spot."
Miller also argued that even though Clinton was working for the commander in chief, her State Department role makes her "complicit" in Obama's foreign policy agenda. "It's not like she can come out of this dark period and say she opposed all these excesses of the security state. That's not going to be credible," he said. "The idea that she can sit on the sidelines and wait and see how these tough debates play out doesn't inspire confidence."
To be fair, Clinton has stepped off the sidelines more than once. In September, she backed Obama's efforts to force Syria to allow oversight of its chemical weapons. And as the Supreme Court in March prepared to consider the Defense of Marriage Act—which her husband signed in 1996—she came out in favor of same-sex marriage.
Clinton's allies dismiss the view that the announcement signaled she will run for president again and wants to court the young voters who favored Obama. "Gay marriage is an important moral issue of our time, and it's in character for her to weigh in on the moral issues of our time," said Geoff Garin, another top Clinton strategist in 2008.
Clinton has also used Twitter to wade into current events. "Ten years ago I was proud to begin working on bipartisan efforts to save unemployment insurance. Let's do it again quickly in this year," she posted in December. She also spoke out in less than 140 characters after a Supreme Court ruling in June, saying, "I am disappointed in today's decision striking at the heart of the Voting Rights Act."
But as far as longer dialogues, Clinton has given exactly three interviews in the past year—to New York magazine for a cover story about her post-State Department life, to ABC's Barbara Walters as "the most fascinating person of 2013," and to The New Yorker for a profile of her successor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Clinton has fielded more questions behind closed doors as part of corporate-sponsored speeches that reportedly pay at least $200,000.
The lack of transparency has left progressives wondering about how the longtime advocate for women and children would pick up the fight against income inequality in a presidential campaign. Robert Borosage, codirector of the left-leaning Campaign for America's Future, is curious about how her experience as secretary of State influenced her view of trade policy and multinational corporations.
"Her hiatus from politics coincided with the global economy blowing up, so if she runs it will be incumbent upon her to lay out a different set of policies," Borosage said. "She has a chance to separate herself from her husband and the president and meet the new populist temper of the times."
But until Clinton is ready to launch a campaign that would clarify her positions, Republican critics are free to make assumptions. "She's been a big proponent of the surveillance state and the NSA," Sen. Rand Paul, a potential GOP rival in 2016, said earlier this week.
A Clinton associate declined to respond, saying, "On these policy issues, she really has to speak to them herself. I know there's a hunger for her to do so, but that's not where we are right now."
Vetting Clinton on chained CPI and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have to wait.
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Where Does She Stand?.