WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton had a rough rollout for her new book and likely presidential quest; there were gaffes, awkward answers and a slow response to criticism.
No other would-be presidential contender approaches her stature or public appeal. None, for now, will face the same scrutiny.
Some of today’s headline grabbers – the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya or the re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky – will diminish or disappear. What voters will want to hear from her is what she’d do as president and where she would lead the country. Her previous service is an entry ticket again but not a guarantee of success, as she learned in 2008.
There is a delicate balancing act with President Barack Obama, because embracing change means creating distance from his policies. It’s a tougher task than Vice President George H.W. Bush faced in 1988 with President Ronald Reagan, who was more popular than Obama is now. Bush was able to simultaneously stress continuity and modest change; that’ll be harder in 2016.
For a self-styled policy nerd who has been in the limelight for more than two decades, her views on the dominant economic issues remain relatively vague. Over the next year, she will need to define whether she’s a Wall Street Democrat or has moved closer to the populist views of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. What does she think about tougher regulation of big banks or redistributive tax reform?
Even on foreign policy, “Hard Choices,” her latest book, doesn’t much differentiate her views from those of the president. There are a few exceptions, such as her desire to move more aggressively to assist the insurgents in Syria. Is there a Clinton doctrine on the appropriate use of force? What are the economic and political implications of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia?
There will be personal and ethical questions. She will need to work out potential conflicts presented by the Clinton Global Initiative and its blue-chip list of wealthy donors.
Clinton backtracked from her assertion – in response to a question about her big-money speeches to vested interests – that she and her husband were “broke” when they left the White House. She hasn’t explained why she still needs to get $200,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs now that the couple is worth as much as $50 million.
In the Hillary constellation, there are greedy acquaintances eager to trade on their supposed relationship with her. That’s not unusual, just potentially more harmful in her case. If she decides to run, she may want to lay down a simple law: You work for me and nobody else. That could help avoid a repeat of the unseemly incident in 2008 when her top strategist, Mark Penn, was simultaneously working for the Colombian government.
“Hard Choices” does offer insights, including a vivid description of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, a chilling portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a reminder of the brilliance of her irrepressible, sometimes suffocating, top lieutenant, the late Richard Holbrooke.
(Calculatingly, she avoids the “radical candor,” a term she likes, that might offend anyone who could reciprocate. An example: She praises former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon as a “valued colleague,” yet people close to the former secretary describe how she lashed out at the White House aide for sabotaging his old friend Holbrooke.)
As Clinton probably knows, she won’t have an easy path to a presidential coronation. Unforeseen events and crises will occur. Why? Because they always do.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.