It says something about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that it was big news that she submitted herself to an interview with a cable news journalist. It also says something that the journalist selected for this honor, Brianna Keilar of CNN, was recently a guest at the wedding of the director of grassroots engagement for the Clinton campaign. Makes sense to hedge your risk.
To her credit, Keilar did ask some reasonably tough questions and even some follow-ups, before concluding the interview with questions about earth-shaking issues such as who should be on the $10 bill and who is Saturday Night Live’s best Hillary Clinton imitatrix.
But, oddly for a former secretary of state, there was nothing on foreign policy, despite the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the failed reset with Russia and the Greek Euro crisis. Nothing on the Trans-Pacific trade deal, which Clinton advocated in the first Obama term and is waffling on now.
As one might have expected from a candidate whose campaign keeps reporters back behind a moving rope line (“horrible, horrible” optics, says longtime Clinton adviser Paul Begala), Clinton didn’t provide much in the way of answers.
Will she call for increased tax rates, like Bernie Sanders, who is nipping at her heels in Iowa and New Hampshire polls? No answer. She promised to set out later her policies, which “will actually work in the short term, the medium term and the long term.”
On immigration, she’s still for a “comprehensive” reform that “includes a path to citizenship.” But after the murder committed by an illegal immigrant who has been deported five times then was turned loose in San Francisco under its “sanctuary city” policy, Clinton did reverse her 2008 support of sanctuary cities and admitted that the city, where 83 percent of the population voted Obama in 2012, “made a mistake.”
About her private email system, she repeated the improbable tale she told in the United Nations press conference in March — that there was nothing wrong about having a private email system; nothing wrong about deleting thousands of messages; people will eventually see the (unsearchable, edited by staff) 55,000 pages she turned over; she has never “had” a subpoena (actually she has).
Early in the interview, Keilar asked Clinton why most voters don’t find her honest and trustworthy. Clinton repeated the defense she and her husband have made since the 1990s: any charges are old news. The Clintons have been subjected to a “constant barrage of attacks,” have endured “the same kind of onslaught” for “many, many years,” and have been the subject of “books filled with unsubstantiated attacks.” But “people should and do trust me.”
This defense worked for Bill Clinton in 1996 when he was the incumbent president and most voters considered him competent and a near-majority voted to give him a second term. It’s not clear whether it will work for Hillary Clinton in 2016, when she is not the incumbent and most voters are not so favorably inclined toward the policies of her party (and are so far largely bereft of knowledge about her own).
A political leader’s strength is also his or her weakness. Bill Clinton is articulate — and slippery. George W. Bush is steadfast — and stubborn. Barack Obama is inspirational — and weak on details.
Most voters regard Clinton as dishonest and untrustworthy, but most also consider her a strong leader. Behind this judgment I think is an appreciation of her strength, which is also her weakness. She is persistent — and shameless.
She slogs on, as she did for hopeless weeks in her 2008 campaign, despite embarrassments that would make most people want to disappear from public view forever. She makes brazen misstatements and assumes voters will consider her public virtues so manifest they justify overlooking all her evasions and prevarications.
She is still on track to win the Democratic nomination, even though her super PAC feels obliged to furnish volunteers with scripts to explain why they’re excited about her. Bernie Sanders is drawing enthusiastic crowds of white liberals but has little appeal to blacks, Hispanics and moderate whites. And about half of general election voters will favor the Democratic nominee over any Republican.
Her campaign tells us what the nation is in store for if she wins. As David Frum wrote in The Atlantic, “No one becomes more accessible, more forthcoming, more candid, more unentitled in office than as a candidate.”