Whatever it is that has projected Hillary Clinton to the front of the Democratic party line, it is not a talent for politics. Thus far, Clinton’s governmental achievements consist of having won election to the Senate in a state she couldn’t possibly have lost, having been appointed to a cabinet position by a president who had little choice, and . . . well, that’s about it really. Earnest challenges, meanwhile, have swiftly floored her. Conventional wisdom suggests that the unique combination of Barack Obama’s preternaturally adroit campaign skills and the country’s exhaustion with the Iraq War precipitated her 2008 collapse. But one is starting to wonder. Before her inevitable 2016 campaign has even begun, her numbers continue to drop — she is now at 52 percent approval, down from 70 percent in December 2012. All told, the last five days cannot have done much to stem the tide.
Clinton started the week by telling Diane Sawyer that she and her husband had been “dead broke” when they left the White House, and had thus been put in the devastating position of not knowing how they were going to fund the purchase of the many mansions that life in Pennsylvania Avenue had led them so desperately to covet. Later, in an attempt to let the public know just what a responsible leader she’d be, Clinton answered Sawyer’s question on Benghazi by first stopping the buck and then cutting it into many pieces. “I take responsibility,” she allowed. “But I was not making security decisions.”
“You should blame me as long as you don’t blame me,” then? “Hard Choices” indeed.
Since that rather rocky start, she has bounced boisterously from gaffe to gaffe, with no demonstrable loss of energy. On the Today show on Wednesday, Clinton implied that her support of the Bergdahl deal served as a solid example of the sort of difficult decisions she’d been asked to make in the past, and might perhaps be asked to make in the future. In the meantime, her team continued to confirm off the record that she hadn’t been comfortable with the swap at all and thus should not share any of the blame. (This, you might notice, is a theme.) Clinton proved unwilling, too, to flesh out exactly why the decision had been such a tough one for President Obama. That Bergdahl may have been a deserter “doesn’t matter,” she explained, because we bring our soldiers home regardless. More important, perhaps, she posited that the five hardened Taliban leaders that the United States traded in exchange “are not a threat to the United States” but only “to the safety and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” If so, one wonders why it was such a difficult call to release them.
Later in the day, in Chicago, Clinton took to rewriting history. During 2008, she recalled, “a senator from Illinois ran against a senator from New York, just as had happened way back with a senator from Illinois named Lincoln and a senator from New York named Seward. And it turned out the same way.” Not really, no. Not only was Lincoln never a senator, but he was a former congressman at the time. The whole story, therefore, was nonsense. Does this matter? Not in and of itself. But too many of those sorts of flubs and one starts to lose one’s sheen. Hillary is seen among her fans as a safe pair of hands — an accomplished, smart, and experienced veteran of Washington who is unlikely to be easily turned into a liability. But, unjust as it might be, goofs can take on a life of their own — especially in the age of social media. Every minute that she is choosing to speak, she’s setting herself up for a fall. Was this book tour a good idea?
Topping off the mess, Clinton yesterday lost her cool with an interviewer from NPR who asked her for more details about her conversion to gay marriage. Clinton, who switched sides last year, evidently didn’t expect to be pressed. “I think you are being very persistent,” Clinton griped. “You are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.” When the host insisted that she was merely trying to get to the bottom of the issue, Clinton became irritated. “No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” she exclaimed. “I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor, and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong.”
Why did Clinton become so annoyed? Because, as with questions about her wealth, she is aware that this issue is a dangerous one for her. Changing one’s mind is fine. As she herself notes, the redefinition of marriage is an “extraordinary change,” and one that the “vast majority of Americans” have only just become accustomed to contemplating. Not only would it have been unthinkable when she was growing up, but its transition into the realm of possibility has been a remarkably brisk one — or, in Clinton’s own words, “an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms social, political and legal transformation.” In consequence, she observes, people are moving toward it “slowly, maybe tentatively, maybe not as quickly and extensively as many would have hoped.” All well and good.
Nevertheless, she should have expected at least a minor inquisition. The gay-marriage movement has, of late, become remarkably intolerant of anybody who dissents from the new orthodoxy — behaving less like a fresh faction that is finally on the brink of winning sustained majority support and more like an entrenched group whose positions have been mainstream for a good amount of time. When Clinton suggests that there is no reason to think that “those who join later, in being publicly supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change, are any less committed” she is right. But her words carry with them an important implication, and one that may be frowned upon by those inclined to give her a pass. After all, if it was acceptable still to be in favor of traditional marriage last year, it must be acceptable now, no? It being rather suspicious that Clinton’s conversion moment came at the exact point that such a metamorphosis became safe, she was always going to draw flak — both from those who manned the first set of barricades and are thus irritated by neophytes, and those who continue to dissent but are not extended the leeway that she believes she should enjoy. Did she really think she wouldn’t be quizzed?
Maybe she did. Maybe she honestly doesn’t see her performance as being relevant. As a rule, that’s always the problem with being the diversity candidate: It’s really no guarantee of competence. “First black judge” tells us three things: that someone is now a judge, that he is black, and that it is the first time that this has happened. It doesn’t, however, tell us if he is any good at being a judge, how he will go about his role, or whether he is likely to rule in the way that his advocates hope he will. Alas, “first woman president” carries with it all the same risks. Bill Clinton was a political prodigy, the questions of what he should run for coming long after the recognition of his talent. His wife, though, seems to be conducting her bid for greatness the other way around. Many of us apparently wish her to be president, and thus hope she’s good enough for the job. Is she? Perhaps. But first, let’s wait and see how next week goes.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.