A friend of mine and I were discussing Hillary Clinton’s putative presidential candidacy over email, and he flagged for me a YouTube video of a debate from the fall of 2007. In it, Tim Russert queried her thusly:
Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the Nashua, N.H., editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?
To which Clinton responded:
Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.
We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It’s probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.
I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well intentioned, can fill this gap. There needs to be federal action on immigration reform. ...
Okay, fair enough. The basic gist seems to be: I support driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants with reluctance. It is a public safety issue and, absent federal action, governors have a responsibility to do something about it.
This prompted Chris Dodd, the “Friend of Angelo,” to go on the attack. Dodd argued that driver’s licenses are a privilege, not a right, and they should not be given to anybody here illegally.
Again, fair enough. That seems like a clear contrast for primary voters. If you care about this issue and want illegal immigrants to have licenses, Clinton is your candidate. If not, consider Dodd.
But then Clinton just had to interject:
I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it.
Wait...what? I thought she was in favor of it. Now, she isn’t. But then Dodd pushed back:
(A) driver’s license goes too far, in my view.
And then Clinton again defends Spitzer’s move:
Well, you may say that, but what is the identification if somebody runs into you today who is an undocumented worker…
After a bit more back-and-forth, Russert interjects with this pointed question:
Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor’s plan to give illegal immigrants a driver’s license? You told the Nashua, N.H., paper it made a lot of sense.
To which the senator from New York...objected in principle to the question:
You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha.
Then she once again tried to split the difference:
It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed.
Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who’s in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He’s making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.
This episode generated some bad press for Clinton back in 2007, and I bring it up now because it is essentially the same as her positioning this week on Obama’s foreign policy. She gives a hard-hitting interview to the Atlantic that seems to put some distance between the president and herself, then calls him to assure him there is no such distance. She wants it both ways.
I am also reminded of her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross over gay marriage. In it, she admits to having evolved as public opinion did, but that she did not do so for political purposes. And she cannot help but complain about the “gotcha” nature of the question (seeing as how NPR hosts are always so tough on Democratic presidential candidates).
I am also reminded of her ever-shifting explanation of her vote to authorize war in Iraq. Unlike her 2008 competitor John Edwards, she refused to repudiate that vote, instead arguing implausibly that it was a vote to facilitate diplomacy, even though she voted against an amendment to the resolution that would have required more diplomacy.
Wanting to be all things to all people does not make Hillary Clinton a bad person. It makes her a politician. Her husband, famously, has this quality. As Daniel Halper reports in Clinton, Inc., Clinton’s obsessive desire to be adored by all prompted him to make amends with even his most intense enemies, like the late Richard Mellon Scaife.
Hillary Clinton’s problem is political, not ethical. Unlike her husband, she seems to have a real problem taking both sides of an issue with any sort of eloquence. Her answers are clunky, stilted, and obviously calculated. And after she is called out on said calculation, she is prone to complain about how unfair the question is.
Of course, Mitt Romney had this problem as well, although he was less likely to snap at the questioner. So also did John Kerry, whose line “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it,” remains a classic in political doublespeak.
For all intents and purposes, Hillary Clinton is running for president right this very minute. Her book is part of the campaign. So were her interviews with NPR and the Atlantic. Assuming she wins the nomination of her party, she will be campaigning for the next 26-and-a-half months. How will this quality of hers wear? Probably not very well. Voters do not like this kind of doublespeak, or—perhaps better put—they prefer the politician do it with a bit of style and grace. If Bill Clinton, for instance, explained why he flip-flopped on middle class tax cuts between the 1992 campaign and his 1993 budget, his audience might conclude that the only principled move on Clinton’s part was to repudiate his prior position. While Bill Clinton comes off much better than he substantially is, Hillary Clinton somehow manages to come across substantially worse. After all, which Democratic pol did not follow the trade winds on gay marriage—and yet Hillary Clinton is the one who looks like a hack for her calculation.
This gives conservatives an opportunity. In this week’s edition of the magazine, I argued that the GOP must embrace wholeheartedly the banner of reform to oppose Clinton. Here, I’d add another quality for Republican candidates: earnestness.
I’m reminded of an explanation from a congressmen to political scientist Richard Fenno about how the former can win over constituents who disagree with him:
It’s a weird thing how you get a district to the point where you can vote the way you want to without getting scalped for doing it. I guess you do it in two ways. You come back here a lot and let people see you, so they get a feel for you. And, secondly, I go out of my way to disagree with people or specific issues. That way, they know you aren’t trying to snow them. And when you vote against their views, they’ll say, “Well, he’s got his reasons.” They’ll trust you. I think that’s it. If they trust you, you can vote the way you want, and it won’t hurt.
Fenno’s study of House members in their home districts was completed in the late 1970s, long before public opinion polling, focus grouping, etc., had penetrated so deeply into the fabric of American politics. Virtually no pollster or strategist would agree with this today. Instead, they’d encourage a candidate to demure, to obfuscate, to do what Hillary Clinton does (only better).
Still, the appeal of this congressman’s strategy should be obvious. Voters are primed to expect politicians to try to be all things to all people, so a pol who goes against that grain comes across like a real person. He actually is who he appears to be. “Well, he’s got his reasons.”
Hillary Clinton will not be that candidate in 2016. In all likelihood, she will come across as more calculating than the average politician, even though in reality they all tend to be about the same. That’s the opening for the Republican party: Nominate somebody authentic, somebody who is prepared to defy his handlers on important issues, to lay out plainly the areas where there might be disagreements with voters and to give people the impression that what you see is what you get.
If it finds a candidate who combines authenticity with a real commitment to reform, the GOP can put up a robust fight to the Clinton Machine.