Peter Beinart: ‘Hillary Does Learn From Her Mistakes...After the Damage Is Done’

Hillary Clinton is not as complex as the universe, but she's Big and Important enough for Peter Beinart to call his 4,600-word National Journal piece on her hypothetical presidency "A Unified Theory of Hillary" and appear to mean it (mostly) seriously.

The article deals more with Hillary's personality than with her ideology (for what it's worth, Beinart classifies Hillary, along with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as moderate liberals). Beinart lauds her "passion for public policy," her "formidable analytical ability," and her "[s]ingle-mindedness," but contends that last quality also is her "greatest flaw," pointing to how she suffered major setbacks on health-care reform and, eventually, the Iraq war because she did not, and perhaps could not, adjust to political realities.

From Beinart's piece (emphasis added):

[Hillary] possesses some of the qualities most necessary for presidential success…She's terrific at developing and executing a well-defined plan. She's less adept at realizing that a well-defined plan is not working and improvising something new. Single-mindedness is both her greatest strength and greatest flaw.

AT BEST, HILLARY CLINTON could be the Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama's John F. Kennedy: the tough-minded successor who achieves what their more charismatic, but less politically savvy, predecessor could not…

...Hillary will be able to draw on a combination of political gifts that set her apart from both her husband and Obama. Hillary's major advantage over Bill is her mental toughness…

From their days in Arkansas, Hillary took the lead in combating the scandalmongers who threatened Bill's career. Her default position was single-minded and relentless. She repeatedly urged her husband's advisers to meet attacks on Bill's character by going after the character of his opponents. (According to Bernstein, in 1992 she urged the campaign to fan rumors about George H.W. Bush's infidelity.)…

…It was Hillary who helped direct the attack on independent counsel Kenneth Starr as a right-wing zealot, an attack that strengthened Democratic opposition to the impeachment crusade…

Hillary will never be the orator Obama is, and how well she'd rally the public to her side in policy disputes is an open question. But inside the Beltway, she'd likely do a better job of both rewarding her friends and making people fear being her enemy…

Hillary's greatest triumphs have come when she has combined these political skills with her passion for public policy, her formidable analytical ability, and her near-legendary work ethic…


As policy, the [health-care] proposal that Hillary and [Ira] Magaziner helped craft possessed considerable merit. But, politically, it was a hard sell. Its complexity made it difficult to explain to a public besieged by health care industry scare tactics…

The White House's refusal to scale back its ambitions [on health-care reform] left a more powerful coalition of opponents to confront. And when Hillary proposed vilifying opponents…key congressional Democrats were appalled…

George Stephanopoulos would later reflect that "the plan, like the woman who guided it, was ambitious, idealistic, and highly logical" but "also inflexible"…

IF HILLARY'S FAILURE to improvise contributed to the demise of health care reform, it also contributed to her greatest foreign policy blunder—her support for the Iraq War—and her subsequent loss to Barack Obama in 2008…

As with health care reform, Hillary's transition from first lady to elected official relied on a clear plan, a key component of which was: Disprove the caricature of herself as a left-wing radical (an effort made easier by the fact that the caricature had never been remotely true)…

…During her husband's presidency, she realized that military toughness could be not only good politics but also good policy…

In bucking her party's liberal base, Hillary almost certainly believed she was doing the right thing…Her political failure lay in her inability to see how dramatically the center of gravity in her party was shifting away from her point of view…

...[Hillary’s] successes and failures [as president] would look different from Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's. Bill's failures often owed to indiscipline. Obama's have stemmed in part from aloofness. If past is prologue, Hillary's would stem in significant measure from unwillingness to change course. Hillary does learn from her mistakes. But only after the damage is done.

Her successes as president, on the other hand, would likely result from the kind of hands-on, methodical, unyielding drive that both Bill Clinton and Obama struggled to sustain. In her wonkishness and her moderate liberalism, Hillary has much in common with Obama and her husband. But her "tunnel vision"—in the words of a close friend quoted in Sally Bedell Smith's For Love of Politics—might produce a presidency more stylistically akin to that of George W. Bush…


Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters