8 Years Later, Will America Really Be Ready for Hillary?

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Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Hillary Clinton's book tour finally – perhaps mercifully – began to wind down, and though everyone agreed it had been a disaster, no one seemed able to agree on what the nature of the disaster had been. Criticisms of the rollout tended to reveal more about the critic than about Clinton. "It's the gaffes that stand out," declared Politico, which has more or less become America's gaffe police. The media-consultant whisperer Mark Halperin, appearing on Charlie Rose, could not understand why Clinton had taken so much time to write this book without settling on a single clear "message." On ABC, Clinton defended her quarter-million-dollar speaking fees by claiming, a little absurdly, that she and her husband had been "struggling" financially when they left the White House. On NPR, she grew combative when asked straightforward questions about her position on gay marriage. Early book sales were disappointing. Conventional wisdom settled: The rollout of Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy, if not the candidacy itself, had crashed and burned.

This was, from the Clinton perspective, bad political theater, but it really was mostly theater. Why is the public meant to root for a clearer "message" in a memoir by a retiring secretary of state? When did we all become campaign consultants? Once you get beyond the dispiritingly wolfish combat between Clinton's aides and the press that always engulfs her, it's not the style of the Clinton book and book tour that carries the most meaning. It's the substance.

One of the great questions that lingers over Hillary Clinton's embryonic presidential candidacy is what we should make of her (pretty disastrous) 2008 run. Her advantages at the outset of that campaign seemed formidable. And yet her candidacy amounted to a near-complete misreading of the electorate. She played the centrist and the insider when the mood was moving left, and toward outsiders; she ran as a hardened and somewhat cynical candidate, skeptical of Obama's idealism, when the country was in a hopeful mood; she opposed driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants when America was growing more comfortable with its own diversity; beyond the deep emotional promise of a first woman president and the underdog tenacity she showed toward the end, at a basic level, she mostly failed to inspire.

But there were mitigating factors: Clinton was up against a historically talented presidential candidate, and her campaign made some very basic and very important errors. There was reason to believe that Clinton's 2008 candidacy might not have shown her at her best, or even been true to who she was.

A book and a book tour, though, are much more controlled environments. And I think that the evidence shows that Clinton's 2008 candidacy was not a deviation from her politics, but a more or less honest expression of them. In her book and on her book tour, the same strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies have recurred. Clinton has deep partisan and patriotic instincts; she is skeptical of idealists and bold political ideas; she is cautious about political change; she has a cynical streak. The 4 a.m. phone call is who she now is. None of which is to say that Clinton's candidacy won't be more compelling or successful this time around; she is remarkably skilled. The real question for 2016 isn't whether Clinton will evolve as a political thinker to meet the moment; probably, she won't. The question is how much the country has evolved during the last eight years — whether the moment will meet her.

First things first: Hard Choices is not a bad book, and not nearly as bad as its advance press. Not beach reading, sure, but in its own way interesting and insightful. Clinton is at her shrewdest and her most engaged when in small rooms, working to make sense of the motives and personalities of the extremely powerful. Beneath Dilma Rousseff's prosaic politics, she notices an admirable "true grit." Clinton is excellent and cutting in observing Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, two of the great modern egomaniacs, vying for credit for a Libya freedom operation that neither one really deserved. More moving is her explication of the paradoxical positions of Middle Eastern strongmen, whose repression is both brutally self-serving and built from a genuine fear of Islamic radicalism and a desire for a more modern world for their daughters and granddaughters. She is alive to cynicism. In the debates over whether to launch the bin Laden raid, Clinton argued against other administration officials who worried about destroying any working friendship the United States had with Pakistan. "Our relationship with Pakistan was strictly transactional, based on mutual interest, not trust. It would survive." Dead on.

But her deftness when it comes to palace dynamics and intrigue has a flip side. Clinton is far less convincing when discussing political beliefs and ideology, the politics of the street. She spends less than two pages discussing Edward Snowden, and doesn't even weigh in on whether he is a traitor or hero, simply quoting President Obama's thoughts and moving on. Meeting with a group of young Egyptian revolutionaries, she notices only "a disorganized group not prepared to contest or influence anything." Internally, she detects the same naïveté in some of the president's younger advisers: "Like many other young people around the world, some of President Obama's aides in the White House were swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment." The skeptical line that ran through her 2008 presidential campaign, the suggestion that politics were not really about hope and that there was something deeply naïve about thinking that they were, keeps recurring here.

Even in her own memoir of public service, Clinton's moral judgments are hard to differentiate from her tactical assessments. Why was she a regime-change hawk in Libya and Syria, but not in Egypt? Probably it has something to do with her personal assessment of Hosni Mubarak, whose support of Israel she continuously praises. Clinton is rightly proud of her public support of a protest by Saudi women who drove cars in defiance of a governmental ban. But she says on the same page that she pointedly declined to make a public case of an 8-year-old Saudi girl whose father sold her into marriage to a 50-year-old man in return for $13,000. (The girl's mother had tried to get Saudi courts to annul the marriage, but they had refused.) "Fix this on your own and I won't say a word," Clinton says she told the Saudis. Clinton's basic optimism about people can sometimes be overtaken by a basic cynicism about politics.

These questions of personal and political belief began to dog Clinton a little more explicitly during her book tour. It is what Terry Gross was trying to get at in pressing Clinton about the evolution of her own position on gay marriage: What private convictions had Clinton harbored, despite the constraints of what she might say, as a political figure? Most older politicians, and certainly all older liberals, have to dodge this question, and they tend to do it by talking about a tension between the traditional beliefs with which they were raised and a belief in basic human equality. Clinton didn't talk about beliefs at all; she cast herself as a passive figure, moved along by history. Clinton: "I think I'm an American, I think that we have all evolved, and it's been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I'm aware of." Gross: "I'm pretty sure you didn't answer my question." Clinton: "I said I'm an American, so of course we all evolved ..." Soon Clinton was accusing Gross of playing with her words. It takes a pretty jaded liberal to look at Terry Gross and detect some reptilian motive. That Clinton wasn't prepared for a question like this is a little embarrassing. More telling is that she didn't realize it was a question about belief at all.

It's not as if Hillary Clinton does not have political beliefs or a political program. Since the beginning of her career, she has been a devoted advocate for the liberal meritocracy: for expanding the protections of government so that they might permit talent to triumph over privilege. This is not the most radical political ideology, but it is both consistent and genuinely liberal, and it runs through Clinton's push for universal health-care and her work with the Children's Defense Fund, her rhetoric as secretary of state and the sometimes-striking emotional charge that has accompanied her campaign to be the first woman president. ("Eighteen million cracks in the glass ceiling," she told her supporters in her concession speech, referring to the number of primary votes she'd won.) In Pakistan, the secretary of state listens to a young female medical student who thanks Clinton personally for inspiring young women around the world and then "pivot[s] to a sharp-edged question about the use of drones," and the collateral damage inflicted on civilians. Clinton feels a pang of identification. "If I had been born in Pakistan, who knows, perhaps I would be standing where she was now."

The challenge for Hillary Clinton is that her beliefs have just about won. The liberal defense of the meritocracy is now the default position of the American Establishment — in its government, its corporate life, its TED Talks. The young woman medical student in Pakistan is destined to be the hero of a Nicholas Kristof column. The political critiques that have carried the debate for much of the past half-decade are the more fundamental challenges to Clinton's neoliberalism posed by figures such as Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren — and, in a different way, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Clinton does not engage these critiques. She doesn't really seem to notice them.

Early in Hard Choices, Clinton identifies two figures from the distant American past as personal role models: William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, and Dean Acheson, who was Eisenhower's. There is something nicely and characteristically wonkish about these choices. But they also say something, I think, about the role Clinton has chosen for herself. She is the American Establishment, in its altered, more liberal form. She is both a statist and a progressive. Which leaves one particularly interesting question for the 2016 campaign: whether Americans are willing to trust the Establishment that the Clintons represent.