If I’ve learned one thing from knowing and covering Hillary Clinton for 25 years, it’s this: Don’t assume a damn thing.
People assumed that she couldn’t overcome skepticism of feminists and Northern transplants (she was both) to champion education reforms in Arkansas. She overcame. “I think we’ve elected the wrong Clinton,” legislator Lloyd George, leader of the good-old-boy caucus, said after she presented proposed reforms to a legislative committee in 1983.
People assumed that she’d be a quiet partner in Gov. Bill Clinton’s closely fought 1990 reelection bid. Wrong: She eviscerated her husband’s Democratic rival in a state Capitol ambush.
People assumed that she’d shrink into a traditional first lady’s role after becoming a polarizing figure in the 1992 presidential election. Wrong: She oversaw her husband’s signature legislative initiative, the poorly drawn and managed health care package that collapsed in Congress.
People assumed that she’d leave her husband after he had an affair with a White House intern and lied about it. Wrong.
When I reported that she was considering a campaign for the Senate in New York, people scoffed. One news organizations quoted sources “close to Clinton” insisting that she would not run. People assumed that she would lose that Senate race in 2000, that she would win the presidency in 2008, and that she would reject Barack Obama’s offers of a Cabinet post.
Get my point?
Don’t assume that she runs for president. The deeper you dive into her inner circle and talk to friends who are not financially and professionally invested in a 2016 campaign, the more likely you’ll find people encouraging her not to run — or at least to avoid getting stampeded. I’d put the odds at 80-20 in favor of her running, and yet I know I shouldn’t be surprised by anything she does.
Don’t assume she wins. I’ve written this before: Despite her many strengths (“What I Learned Covering Hillary Clinton”), nothing is predictable about modern politics, and Clinton has particular weaknesses (“7 Ways Clinton and Christie Could Bungle 2016”).
Don’t assume she’ll bow to the Left. My colleague Alex Seitz-Wald makes a well-argued case that progressives will steer her 2016 agenda because they’ve essentially already made the Democratic Party more liberal. In “How Progressives Will Pull Hillary Leftward,” Alex writes:
No matter how much money she can raise, Clinton will need the Democratic base for its energy and organizing, she’ll need its small-dollar grassroots donations, and she’ll need it to rally to her defense when she gets attacked. If she wants to create an aura of having united the party behind her, she needs to bring the base on board. And all of that gives the rank and file leverage.
I disagree. I think the leverage lies with Clinton. More importantly, that’s what her advisers believe. They know that if Clinton is given the Democratic nomination by virtual acclamation, she will be able to maneuver freely to the middle when her personal views and political necessity require it. She would need the progressive base, of course, but less so than a traditional candidate.
“Nobody, not even our allies, should take us for granted,” said one of her oldest friends and political advisers, who spoke to me this weekend on condition of anonymity, because nobody is allowed to discuss their private conversations with Clinton. Her views on Wall Street and foreign policy are already more centrist than the Democratic base. This adviser also pointed to trade, school choice, entitlements, and welfare reform as other potential points of triangulation.
Yes, I know. This adviser could be spinning me. It’s been done before. That’s why progressives (and conservatives, for different reasons) should not assume a damn thing about Clinton. They should carefully read a piece by another National Journal colleague. In “What Hillary’s Not Telling Us,” Beth Reinhard noted that Clinton’s views on several hot-button issues are unknown because of her relative silence since 2008. She wrote:
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.
This is what little I know about Clinton: The greatest gap is often the one between our assumptions and her reality.