Column: Hillary Falls to Earth

Hillary Clinton / AP
April 18, 2014

Hillary Clinton may end up deciding she wants to spend the 935 days until election 2016 making corporate speeches and spoiling her grandchild. Recent events have exposed weaknesses in Clinton’s supposedly impregnable armor, gaps through which a Democratic or Republican challenger could damage, perhaps even defeat her. The bad headlines to which she has been subjected are enough to make anyone—anyone who isn’t a Clinton—think twice about running for president.

Look at the polls. This week’s Fox News poll has Clinton’s favorable rating at its lowest point in six years. She is at 49 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable—similar to her 47 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable rating when she ended her last presidential campaign.

More important than the individual results, however, is the trend. Since leaving office as secretary of state, Clinton’s favorable rating has been on a downward trajectory. And this is before the rigors of a campaign, before a Biden or a Warren or an O’Malley or a Cuomo or a Schweitzer or a Sanders throws a punch or two, before Christie, Bush, Rubio, Walker, Jindal, Paul, Kasich, Ryan, Perry, and Pence go for the Cobra Clutch Bulldog. A shoo-in? So was The Undertaker.

Already Clinton is finding it difficult to articulate a rationale for her presidency, to pronounce a record of achievement on which to base a campaign. In an appearance this month at the Women in the World Summit she had trouble naming her proudest accomplishment as secretary of state. It is a question that her strongest supporters, in her party and in the media, cannot answer. "Hillary Clinton Struggles to Define a Legacy in Progress," read the headline in the Thursday New York Times. "Mrs. Clinton is striking a delicate balance," the paper reports, "when discussing a job that would be a critical credential in a presidential race." The last secretary of State to become president was James Buchanan. He gave us the Civil War.

Clinton, the Times goes on, wants "credit for the parts of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that have worked," while "subtly distancing herself from the things that have not worked out." Imagine that. "The things that have not worked out" compose quite a list. What Hillary Clinton wants is to have it all, to enjoy the fading residual glow of President Obama’s halo without having to answer for all of the messes he will leave behind. Her friends tell the Times that her upcoming memoir, for which she was reportedly paid $14 million, will provide an opportunity to "provide her view of WikiLeaks, Benghazi, and smaller missteps like the Russia reset button." It will provide an opportunity, in other words, to offer a generous helping of self-serving and exculpatory spin.

I doubt it will succeed. Far too many reporters, in both the mainstream and the conservative media, have a professional incentive in fact-checking Clinton. Last December, when the Times published a lengthy whitewash of Clinton’s involvement in the lead-up and aftermath of the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, it did not take long before the apologia was deconstructed by experts and Senate investigators. Clinton’s book will be examined not only by supporters eager for ready-made defenses of her time as secretary of state, but also by opposition researchers and investigative reporters, and by her former antagonists within government, who will want their version of events to be reflected in the news.

If she runs for president Clinton will have to name what she was most proud of as secretary of state, and she will have to name, in public, the issues on which she and the president disagreed. Back-channel quotes to the Times from members of her circle will not be enough. Even Obama, who enjoyed an overwhelmingly favorable press in 2008, had to issue detailed proposals on foreign affairs, had to make a stand on withdrawals from Iraq and meetings with foreign dictators.

He made the wrong stands, true. But he made them. It is absurd to think that Clinton will be able to coast to the Oval Office without saying, at length, how she would handle Russia, Iran, Syria, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the defense budget, without describing how her administration would differ from the one that over the last six years has overseen an incredible amount of global disorder, without promising to accomplish more as president than serving as a "global ambassador for women." We still have debates. We still have elections. We do not have coronations. Yet.

One reason Clinton may be reluctant to share her views on diplomacy and foreign intervention is that her views are not quite those of her party. It is well known that Clinton advocated for arming the Syrian rebels—a policy rejected by her boss. The foreign-policy thinkers with whom she is aligned call for stronger military assistance to beleaguered democracies such as Ukraine—assistance President Obama denies. The Times reports that Clinton "privately had qualms" with the president’s strategy of demanding an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for peace talks with the Palestinians. She followed her orders—but we are led to believe, on the basis of the Times’ reporting, that a President Hillary Clinton would not impose such ridiculous burdens on Israel. How would that fly among the Democrats? This is the party that at its last convention booed God and Jerusalem.

On foreign policy it is Obama, not Clinton, who is at the center of his party. America, we are reminded daily, is in one of her periodic modes of retrenchment. It will take a public argument, made by a prominent figure, to persuade America otherwise. So far Clinton seems unwilling to make that argument, to be that figure.

A similar disconnect characterizes Clinton’s domestic policy—to the extent that she has one. She wants to fix Obamacare. She is for equal pay for women, for voting rights for minorities, for same-sex marriage. But she has yet to find a heroic cause, an issue around which to rally the youthful and diverse Democratic base. There is no war for her to run against. She is not about to go the full Snowden and argue, like Rand Paul, for the abolition of the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program. On marijuana legalization, another issue dear to the coalition of the ascendant, she is circumspect. The banks? She’s taken $200,000 paydays from Goldman Sachs and the Carlyle Group. The One Percent? Her net worth is estimated at $21.5 million.

About the only constituency truly excited for a Clinton run is the class of wealthy donors to the Democratic Party and its pet causes, the power players and lobbyists and CEOs and film executives and trial lawyers and liberal bankers and green entrepreneurs who know that a Hillary Clinton White House would be a field day for special access, a celebration of cronyism, a flagrant and grotesque division of spoils. They see the way the Clintons have managed their foundation, they are aware of the consulting company, Teneo, to which the Clintons have been tied. They see the favoritism and glad-handing with which Clinton’s State Department dealt with Boeing, they remember the selling of nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, they ignore the fact that Clinton donors have a habit of winding up in jail.

Undistinguished, hawkish, corporate, opulent, for sale—Hillary Clinton is like a caricature of a Republican. As long as she can obscure that fact from the Democratic masses, from the anti-corporate doves whose social progressivism is far more strident than her own, she will be able to maintain the illusion of the impregnable frontrunner. But nothing lasts forever. Either Clinton will realize this soon, and spend out her days relaxing and cooing over her grandchild. Or she will realize it later, the hard way, sometime in 2016.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just saying there’s a chance.