Anne Applebaum on Hillary’s Book

by Michael Potemra

When I got the review copy of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, I leafed through it and rapidly came to the conclusion that it was a snooze-inducing volume full of thoroughly focus-grouped and staff-processed prose. I mention this not as a criticism of Hillary specifically, but of the genre that she chose to write in: the campaign book that deliberately says nothing interesting, that will be bought by a handful of supporters as a gesture of solidarity, but that will be actually read only by people who hate the author and put the text under a microscope to find material they can use to accelerate her political destruction.

But: Anne Applebaum, God bless her, has read the book and found material of interest — a clue to the nature of Hillary’s understanding of today’s politics. Key quote:

[Hillary] doesn’t delve into policy debates much herself, at least not in this book, but she likes to surround herself (along with her retinue of loyalists and handlers) with people who know about things, and she has the technocrat’s desire to find the best solution to the problem, whatever its origin. She studiously avoids anything that could be misconstrued as “ideological,” or even as an “idea.” She admires experience, preferring the sage advice of Richard Holbrooke over the “younger White House aides” who rolled their eyes when he spoke. What she seems to mean by “smart power” is policies that work.

From all of this, it is possible to make a few good guesses about what kind of candidate Clinton hopes to be: deeply non-ideological, a centrist. She intends to run as a hard-working, fact-oriented pragmatist—someone who finds ways to work with difficult opponents, and not only faces up to difficult problems but also makes the compromises needed to solve them. Again and again she portrays herself sitting across the table from Dai Bingguo or President Putin, working hard, searching for a way forward. Similar methods, presumably, can be applied to the Republican leadership.

Though pretty stultifying to anyone who wants a bit of moral uplift from their presidential candidate, this might well be a brilliant campaign strategy. It might even be a brilliant presidential strategy. Clinton wants to be the politician who will rise above the partisanship that has hamstrung the Obama administration, end the gridlock in Washington, cut deals, and move forward.

In order to do this, she will transform herself into a figure of benign neutrality. Unlike Obama, she will not inspire, but she will also not enrage. Perhaps she provoked angry passions as First Lady, but that is all behind us now. Hillary Clinton circa 2016 will promote not the left and not the right, she will promote America.

To anyone whose memory stretches back beyond the two most recent presidential administrations, this may sound familiar. In the Bill Clinton years, this stance was called “triangulation,” and it meant that the president kept an equal distance from both the Republicans and the Democrats in Congress. Those who didn’t like it complained that, in practice, triangulation required a rejection of anything that looked like political principle or moral consistency in favor of whatever policies might be politically feasible. On the other hand, a decade’s worth of bitter partisanship hasn’t gotten us anywhere, either. After eight years of Bush and eight more of Obama, the nation might well be tired of Big Ideas, and might well prefer some old-fashioned wheeling and dealing instead.

This notion of Hillary as the avatar of a Hardingesque “normalcy” is quite fascinating. It may not work for Hillary in 2016; she may be too associated with the problems of the Obama administration, with the result that she will pay the price as America’s pendulum goes back to the right after eight years of Obamaism. But Applebaum is on to something when she suggests that, with regard to 2016, this is indeed what me might call Hillary’s “theory of the case.”

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