Hillary Clinton is on the defensive, now that her opponents have honed in on her apparent flip-flops and “waffling” in this past week’s debate. In truth, she’s getting a bad rap — or, at least, getting rapped for the wrong reasons. What she was trying to do was admirable: presidential candidates need to preserve their policy options and “waffle” as much as possible. What’s worrisome — both for Democrats and the nation at large — is how badly she does it.
When you’re running for president, you don’t want to take a stand in the primaries that will come back to haunt you as a general-election candidate, especially in a long campaign, during which events can change. The ultimate goal isn’t to win in February; it’s to win next November. More important, if you want to be a good president, you don’t want to take a stand that will tie your hands once in office.
The media is partially responsible for this conundrum. The press has the mindset of a young adolescent. To a 14 year old, the greatest sin one can commit is to be a “phony” — to say one thing and then say or do another. (Remember Holden Caulfield!) Thus, politicians are excoriated for changing their minds — think of George Bush the elder and his repudiation of “no new taxes” — even though one would think that the mark of a truly wise leader is to recognize when changing events dictate a shift in policy.
All politicians change direction, of course, and they also waffle, because voters have two contradictory demands. On the one hand, they want leaders who will do the right thing, independent of public opinion. On the other, they want leaders who will listen to them and do their bidding.
The better politicians resolve the contradiction seamlessly, squaring the circle. Bob Kerrey didn’t mean it as a compliment when he once said that Bill Clinton was an “unusually good liar,” though Clinton’s weakness was also his strength. The same thing, to differing degrees, might be said of FDR, Ronald Reagan, or even “Honest Abe.” (Clinton’s problem was that he chose to lie at the wrong time — under oath.) Hillary, unfortunately, unlike her husband, is an inordinately bad liar. And that’s why she’s under fire.
Best of the worst
Good politicians can preserve their options and pull off this balancing act — pandering while not really seeming to pander and, when doing “the right thing,” changing public opinion so it seems like they’re doing what people wanted in the first place. Again, these aren’t talents Hillary possesses. More than two years ago, Jay Cost wrote astutely in the Wall Street Journal that Mrs. Clinton is “one of the worst politicians in national politics today. She is feared as a brilliant politician only because she is such an obvious politician, which is actually the key mark of a bad politician.”
Until the October 30 debate, Hillary’s lack of political skills had been obscured, largely because her main opponents are Barack Obama, a neophyte whose political inexperience matches her own, and John Edwards, whose efforts have been largely ignored by the media. (The press’s inability to focus on more than one or two things at once is also another adolescent inclination, as is its inclination to run in packs.)