In spite of the great gobs of hype that are gradually beginning to coalescence around her, it remains the case that Hillary Clinton is an extraordinarily boring person. Aware that the Democratic nomination is hers to lose, Clinton has of late declined to share her particular brand of insipidity with the expectant American press corps, on the eminently sensible understanding that she is never more popular than when she is silent. Yesterday, in the safe heart of California’s Silicon Valley, she made a rare exception to the rule. It wasn’t pretty.
Watching the proceedings, Hot Air’s Noah Rothman suggested that it would be impossible for any editor to wrangle “a headline out of anodyne pablum coming out of #LeadOnCA.” Indeed. Sitting down for a chat with tech columnist Kara Swisher, Clinton ran effortlessly though her usual array of platitudes and banalities, ensuring all the while that she would neither offend nor inspire. As has typically been the case since she relinquished the State Department’s reins, Clinton’s act was short on policy but heavy on the sort of high-fiving “girl power” feminism that is more typically found in the candy-pop output of the Spice Girls than in mainstream political discourse. Responding to an inquiry about the role of women in the workplace, she delivered some well-trodden, Arquette-esque boilerplate about equal pay and family leave, but then made sure to insist for balance that what women do “does not have to be big and dramatic.” “You don’t have to run for office,” Clinton assured her audience — and, perhaps, Elizabeth Warren. “But if you do, more power to you.” Clinton Spice has left the building.
Attendees who had hoped that her $300,000 fee might provoke their guest into revealing what she really, really wants must have been sorely disappointed by the performance. “We have to restore trust and cooperation within our political system,” Clinton contended bloodlessly, without explaining once how this might be done in a country as philosophically and politically divided as is the United States in 2015. Later she would explain with studied gravity that “we have to figure out how to make this new economy work for everyone” — as if the country were split on the question of whether this laudable goal should be achieved, and not on how. Occasionally, touches of Obama bubbled up into her pitch. “I’d like to bring people from right, left, red, blue,” she offered, and “get them into a nice warm purple space where everybody is talking and where we’re actually trying to solve problems.”
Asked what she would change about America if she could somehow “wave a magic wand,” Clinton took the safe road. What the country needs, she contended, was more unity. America has problems with “our mindsets” and “our political bunkers,” she lamented. “Nobody wants to associate with someone who doesn’t agree with them politically. They listen to different media. You cannot run a great country like that.”
Nor, it seems, can one “run a great country” if one has any strong opinions at all. Asked if she was running for president, Clinton would say only that she was “obviously talking to a lot of people, thinking it through,” and that there are “a lot of things I would love to see our country do.” The FCC’s plan to enforce net neutrality, she averred, was “a value statement, but it’s not the end of the discussion.” Is the agency’s proposed role legal? “They have to have a hook to hang it on,” she offered. The tension between security and privacy in the tech sector? That’s “a classic tough choice.”
On foreign policy, Clinton owned the brave position that Islamic extremists who burn people alive are Bad, and also that they present a “really complicated and long-term problem.” Nevertheless, she agreed only to endorse the status quo. The United States must continue to use its “air force,” she allowed. “But also army soldiers from the region, and particularly from Iraq.”
Refusing obstinately to comment meaningfully on the NSA, Clinton managed simultaneously to express vague concerns and to decline to criticize the agency for anything other than a lack of “transparency.” When prompted by her interlocutor to say something even remotely compelling, she steadfastly demurred. “I resist saying it has to be this or that,” she murmured sweetly. “I think there has to be a balance.” Later on, she would fail even to name her favorite type of cell phone without carefully reminding the audience that she has both an iPhone and a Blackberry.
At this rate, “I resist saying it has to be this or that” might well make a good campaign slogan. Zigazig ah!
To get an indication of just how unusually safe is Hillary Clinton’s vision for America, one need only note that she derided the exciting business climate in Silicon Valley — a climate that, fostered by a lack of regulation and an explosion in entrepreneurial vim, arguably made her husband’s presidency. American tech, she argued, operates within a troubling “Wild West environment” that is desperately in need of intervention and social engineering if it is to meet with her approval. Is that really “the future”?
On occasion, both Clinton and her champions ranged away from sterility and into abject, even obsequious, nonsense. Introducing Clinton, Intel president Renee James, described her as a “modern-day suffragette,” and proposed inexplicably that “there is no greater threat than a woman who is willing to fall because she has learned to stand back up.” Late in the proceedings, Kara Swisher asked: “If you could have a hashtag for the next few years, what would it be?” “#LeadOn,” Clinton replied immediately. This was the name of the conference, and, presumably, the first thing that Clinton saw in her scramble for an answer. Her description of ISIS, meanwhile, was so garbled as to almost inspire admiration. ISIS, Clinton said, is “the manifestation of a movement that is incredibly fueled by an obsession to control territory.” Well, then.
Insipidity is not always a bad quality in politicians. If I had my way, the United States would elect its president in a quadrennial flurry of civic interest and then never hear from him again unless there were a war or an earthquake. And yet there is a material difference between one’s being nuanced or conversational and one’s being so afraid of contradicting the latest polling data that one becomes tied to the ground as was Gulliver in Lilliput. As her reception yesterday showed, Hillary Clinton is not treated as a Calvin Coolidge figure, and nor is she heralded as a potential return to normalcy after the fevered, celebrity-heavy Obama years. Rather, she is commonly presented as a trailblazer with a hefty résumé — as Benjamin Franklin in a pantsuit.
When the going gets tough, this evident divide — between the promotion and the reality — may be a problem for her, for one cannot simultaneously expect to be treated as a celebrity and to be prosaic in one’s manner, speech, and appearance. At present, Clinton’s challenge is to gear her message towards her well-off audiences, and to say nothing that might swell the coffers and ambitions of her potential primary challengers. In a few months, however, she will be up against a host of opponents who will force her into taking some positions, and when that happens, singing “Wannabe” in the streets will not be enough to guarantee her success.