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.

This is a photo illustration of Hillary Clinton at her innaguration with Hisband Bill. 
National Journal
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Peter Beinart
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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) Photo illustration by Sean McCabe

(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.

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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.

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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) Photo illustration by Sean McCabe

(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) JOSHUA ROBERTS/AFP/Getty Images

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) Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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 Mo­ve­On.org 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) Win McNamee/Getty Images

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.


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