‘Understanding Hillary’: Organized and inflexible

As Hillary Clinton continues her inexorable march to the 2016 presidential race, thousands -- not kidding -- of pieces have been, are being and will be written, all of which aim to explain who she really is and what kind of president she might be. The vast majority of these pieces are not terribly memorable or original and can, in the main, be ignored. But, occasionally, there's an article that breaks through the din and offers what I think is a genuine insight into a person about whom much is written but little is really known.


Hillary Clinton prepares to sign copies of her new memoir 'Hard Choices' at a Costco store in Arlington, Virginia, USA, 14 June 2014.  EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

In an attempt to flag just those sorts of pieces for Fix readers, I am going to highlight them in a series of occasional posts under the umbrella of "Understanding Hillary".  Today, I take on Peter Beinart's piece in National Journal entitled "A Unified Theory of Hillary".

Here's the central observation in Beinart's piece

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.

Simple but, to my mind, a terrific distillation of a Clinton character trait that defines much of her political career -- and, as Beinart details, her life. (He opens the piece with a long anecdote about Clinton failing the D.C. bar exam and how her single-mindedness may well have hamstrung her even back then.)

It's fascinating to see three of the most negative episodes of Clinton's public life through that Beinart lens of single -minded inflexibility. (He goes into far greater detail than I will.)

1. Her failed attempt to pass universal health care during her husband's first presidential term.  Clinton's focus and incredible capacity for hard work produced an incredibly comprehensive and detailed proposal to overhaul the nation's healthcare system. But, when it became clear that such a plan would never make it through Congress -- with many Democrats expressing trepidation and Republicans all-out opposed -- Clinton simply could not (or would not) adjust to changing circumstances. As Beinart documents, Clinton led the fight within the White House against a smaller-bore measure proposed by Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee (R) and Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper (D) that might have been able to pass but was not her original vision.

2. Her vote for the Iraq war and refusal to go back on it. Voting for the use of force resolution against Iraq was, at the time, seen as the "safe" for Democrats with national ambitions since opposing the measure might have opened them up to the charge of being soft on defending the country. And so, Clinton, then in the Senate from New York, as well as John Kerry and John Edwards voted for it. But, unlike those two men, Clinton stuck by the vote -- to her political detriment. Writes Beinart: "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."  And remember: Without their different positions on the Iraq war, it's conceivable that Barack Obama never finds his footing to challenge Clinton in 2008.

3. Her 2008 campaign strategy. Clinton, at the behest of pollster Mark Penn, ran as the quasi-incumbent -- projecting a sense of unquestioned preparedness for the job. But, that also led to a caution on issues that didn't fit the times; the Democratic base had just spent the last eight years with George W. Bush as president and wanted someone willing to draw the brightest lines possible with the other side. Again, Beinart: "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."  

Beinart's piece is not an attack on Clinton.  Rather it's an attempt to understand what sort of president she might be based on what sort of politician (and person) she has been.  He concludes:

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.

It's a genuinely insightful look at how Clinton thinks -- and how that helps and hurts her.  Read it.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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