Friday, October 16, 2009

Hillary Reborn

Illustration by Andy Friedman

The sudden Clinton clamor in the media strikes the ear as especially cacophonous in light of how quiet she has been for most of her nine months in her new job. And the sound of silence out of State, in turn, has given rise to a clear conventional wisdom about Hillary’s role in Obamaville, which is part of what she was reacting to in her interviews with NBC and ABC this week. The CW, put succinctly, is that Hillary is a virtual nonentity in the administration: that in terms of political status, she ranks in the second tier, and that when it comes to policy sway, she has been out-barked and out-bitten by the pack of alpha dogs that the president has installed around her.

She is keeping a very low profile.

It’s easy enough to understand this interpretation of Clinton’s standing. After her soap-operatic campaign, the absence of drama around HRC creates cognitive dissonance for the punditocracy and other Beltway tea-leaf readers. Yet the truth is that the conventional wisdom is wrong, I think, in both its particulars and its overall verdict. And not just wrong but illustrative of a set of misapprehensions about how the woman thinks and operates—or, at least, how she’s learned to do so, especially with respect to the navigation of new terrain. Indeed, one need only look back as far as her time in the Senate to understand how she now sees and plays the game, and why, on everything from the battle over U.S. policy in Afghanistan to the shaping of her future, she’s perfectly likely to win.

It’s possible, of course, that gender studies is the appropriate prism through which Clinton’s behavior should be viewed. But for my money, history provides more insight—in particular, the history of Hillary’s ascension to the upper chamber on the Hill in 2001.

To the outside world, all this laying low has made Clinton look like less of a player. But the reality is almost exactly the opposite. From the outset, Hillary recognized that she could only exercise influence inside the administration if she were trusted by Obama and the people close to him. And although the president himself and Emanuel never had much doubt that she could be a team player, many others in the Obamasphere were supremely skeptical. But no longer. “In terms of loyalty, discretion, and collegiality,” says a senior White House official, “she’s been everything we could have asked or hoped for.”

Has Clinton seriously ruled out another presidential run? I have no idea. What I do know is that her statements on the matter are perfectly meaningless. In the old days, of course, going back on such unequivocal renouncements carried a high political price. But Obama—who renounced his own renouncement of any chance he would run for president in the space of nine months in 2006 and incurred no penalty—may have put an end to that convention. If he has, it may be yet another thing for which Hillary, by an irony, finds herself tossing a bouquet to her former rival, oh, around 2015.

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