What Hillary’s Not Telling Us

The former secretary of State hasn’t been a politician since 2008. A lot has happened since then.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks after being presented the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize December 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. Clinton received the award for her work in the areas of women's rights and internet freedom. 
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Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

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.

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