The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The best thing Chelsea Clinton could do for her political future is to disappear

Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and President Bill Clinton in 1998. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)
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Chelsea Clinton came in for a roasting on Wednesday when some readers mistook the news that she was receiving an award from the Lifetime network and the Hollywood trade magazine Variety to mean she was was going to be the recipient of a lifetime achievement honor. For all this round of particular ire directed at the former first daughter was due to bad faith and misleading headlines, it crystallized an uneasy conviction. If Clinton decides that she wants to run for office or assume some sort of role in American public life — and she has not yet declared that she does, though a more tart Twitter feed and some new projects suggest that she’s attempting to rebrand herself — the best possible thing for her to do in the near-term is to disappear.

Even the most generous reading of Clinton’s professional résumé reveals a portrait of someone who has not exactly discovered her vocation. Clinton began with stints at McKinsey, which can function either as “an elite business training corps” or a sort of holding pattern for smart people without clear career goals, and a hedge fund, then continued on to seats on a couple of corporate and charitable boards, a vice chairmanship at the Clinton Foundation, and a role as a “special correspondent” for NBC that produced a rather embarrassing salary-to-output ratio.

I don’t mean to suggest that Clinton has never done anything worthwhile or never been effective in any role; evidence suggests that if nothing else, she tried to push for improved ethical standards at the Clinton Foundation. But there’s nothing that unites this grab-bag of jobs and sinecures; her positions doesn’t reveal any particular passion for any suite of issues or overarching theory of change. Generally, having one or the other, or both, is helpful if you wish to pursue a career in public service or public advocacy. A dedication to a particular policy area helps explain why a person is seeking a public platform or political office. And an argument for a particular approach to making policy suggests what a person would do with power if they got it. If people are giving you positions because of the family you were born into rather than some relevant talent or interest in the subject, these sorts of positions make the person who holds them look scattered rather than well-rounded.

Even Clinton’s forthcoming children’s book, “She Persisted,” gives the queasy impression of riding someone else’s coattails; the title is a riff on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) explanation for shutting down Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) speech opposing President Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Clinton’s book deal felt like the political equivalent of Etsy stores rushing to emblazon the latest political catchphrase on everything from stamped metal jewelry, to t-shirts, to stemless wine glasses.

It’s absolutely true that Clinton can’t help who her parents are, and it’s not exactly fair that the people who said her tremendously hard-working mother felt entitled to elected office are transferring that gripe into a second generation, even though Chelsea Clinton has not explicitly said that she intends to seek any position. But if it’s not just, it is also an impression that Clinton could take care not to reinforce. If the daughter of two extraordinarily prominent American politicians has to work as hard, or even twice as hard, as other people to prove that she’s more than simply their dynastic successor, I don’t exactly see that as a major tragedy.

So if Clinton does want to run for office, or to be a successful advocate for an issue, or even just to continue to be credible when she tweets or speaks on a subject, the most strategic thing she could possibly do would be to disappear (as much as it’s possible for a famous person to do in the United States these days). She should decline graciously when she’s asked to be an award recipient and send substantial checks to the relevant charities instead. She should stick to publishing substantive volumes such as her previous “Governing Global Health,” written with Devi Sridhar, rather than the sort of children’s volume public figures dash off all the time. And she should find an issue-oriented job that she goes to every day, and at which she has significant, substantive responsibilities.

Even if Clinton does all of this, there will still be plenty of Americans who dislike her or would be disinclined to vote for her. We’re suspicious of dynasties, and overall, I think that’s a healthy element of our politics. But even if lying low and reemerging doesn’t get Clinton elected to anything, or doesn’t win her a platform, a carefully-calibrated retreat might at least put her on an actual career path. There’s more than one route to doing all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.

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