Wednesday, August 3, 2016
The Hillary Clinton You Don't Know
I spent part of last week in the wind and the sand at Lake Powell, baking and watching Chinese space junk burn up spectacularly in the atmosphere, which means I missed the last half of the Democratic National Convention. But thanks to my trusty DVR, I managed to watch all the major speeches this week. The contrast between the two party parties was stark. Who would have expected that the more overtly patriotic of the two would be the Democratic convention? Bright and hopeful and specifics-laden, yes, but patriotic? Well, it is an unusual year. The tone difference in the two conventions was massive.
But I don’t want to focus on the conventions today. When I got back from Lake Powell, I had an email waiting from my son who is at Columbia studying international economic policy. He sent a link to a Vox article by Ezra Klein titled “Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn’t the Clinton Colleagues Know.” I’ll talk about it a little here, but go read it for the full picture. Klein is tackling what has been, for him, a puzzle. Why is the Hillary Clinton he sees in public and reads about in the press not the same person described in private by her colleagues and even by her foes?
Klein calls this “the Gap.” “There is the Hillary Clinton I watch on the nightly news and that I read described in the press,” he says. “She is careful, calculated, cautious. Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense. . . . And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will. Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes.”
So what lies at the heart of this gap? I was surprised by what Klein discovered.
There is something about her persona that seems uniquely vulnerable to campaigning; something is getting lost in the Gap. So as I interviewed Clinton’s staffers, colleagues, friends, and foes, I began every discussion with some form of the same question: What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail?
The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. On the one hand, that makes my job as a reporter easy. There actually is an answer to the question. On the other hand, it makes my job as a writer harder: It isn’t a very satisfying answer to the question, at least not when you first hear it.
Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.
Klein delves into this, and the result is fascinating. Campaigning, he says, is an activity whose parameters have been established by male politicians over decades. Campaigning tends to reward people who are very good at talking. But Hillary’s method of campaigning (and governing) is to listen. Klein gives numerous examples of how this has played out in her interactions with people both on the campaign trail and in her life as a public servant. It is such a rare thing for a politician to seriously listen to people that it produces a rare degree of loyalty among those who interact with her, even opponents.
But this quality puts her at a distinct disadvantage in the effort to get elected, especially since she is not comfortable with self-promotion or public speaking. Her joke in her acceptance speech last Thursday about managing to get a word in edgewise with her husband reflects reality. Bill Clinton is the prototypical male politician. He can talk and entertain and hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Bernie Sanders is similar. His style is different, but he is a talker. He gets his message across like few politicians. He is charismatic and forceful (and says things that need to be said). But this is not Hillary’s strength. She listens, understands what people struggle with, digs into the details, and tries to find effective solutions. Her methods and accomplishments speak for themselves. But she is not good at campaigning.
Which brings us to The Donald. If there was ever a politician who was expert at talking, it is Trump, although he actually says very little that makes sense. His method is to be as outrageous and controversial as possible. If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you’re well aware of what I think of him as a human being and potential U.S. president. I agree that he can talk, but I doubt that he has ever in his life been accused of being a good listener. He hears one voice—his own; and it talks about one topic—Donald Trump. He has left carnage in his wake wherever he has gone, largely because he does not understand people or the issues they struggle with. He knows there is anger out there, and he has offered himself as a savior figure to fix everything. But he doesn’t understand the issues well enough to conceive workable plans, and he cannot bear to listen to people who know more than he does. He is that insecure. But I don’t want to waste space here on the tragedy that has consumed the Republican Party.
Ezra Klein explores some interesting angles on this listening thing. Of course he points out the gender angle. Women are generally better listeners than men. It is certainly true in my family. Women are better at rapport and relationships. This may make them better at governing but less effective at getting elected. “One way of reading the Democratic primary,” says Klein, “is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case—the first time at the presidential level—the female leadership style won.” And in a way, that is astonishing.
But Klein also examines the hazard of this style: “There is a downside to listening to everyone, to seeking rapport, to being inclusive, to obsessing over common ground. Clinton’s effort to find broad consensus can turn her speeches and policies into mush. Her interest in hearing diverse voices can end with her chasing down the leads of cranks and hacks. Her belief that the highest good in politics is getting something—at times, anything—done means she takes few lonely stands and occasionally cuts deals many of her supporters regret.”
Klein even frames the notorious email scandal in the context of listening. “If there has been any major revelation from Clinton’s email releases, it’s just how many people she’s hearing from, how many people she’s listening to.” Sometimes, though, listening to too many voices can create mental and organizational gridlock and delay important decisions. This is something Clinton must work on. But the upside of her approach far outweighs the downside.
Klein does discuss the one group Hillary does not like to hear from: the media. And this is a complicated relationship. But he ends with the idea that Clinton, despite her difficult relationship with Republicans, will be more effective than President Obama at working with them. “She’ll do it by reaching out constantly, endlessly, relentlessly, and cheerfully.” He refers to Obama’s joke about having a drink with Mitch McConnell, something that will never happen. “This is where Clinton and Obama differ. One official who has worked with them both says, ‘The Republicans I know think she’s just as horribly liberal as Obama but she’ll be better at compromising and working with others.’ . . . Hillary Clinton will never stop having drinks with Mitch McConnell.”
As a senator, Hillary teamed with an array of Republicans to get things done: Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Bill Frist, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum, John Sununu, Mike DeWine. “She was wonderful at working with Republicans in the Senate,” says Tom Harkin. “I never heard any Republican senators demean her during that time. She’d come to your office, sit down, talk, have coffee. She could have come in as a prima donna. She never did.”
Klein wraps things up by reminding us of the toxic political atmosphere we live in and how the Republicans, if Clinton wins, will spend every waking moment trying to win back the White House. But “no one will ever accuse her of not having Mitch McConnell over for enough drinks. He may even like having a drink with her. He’ll probably find she’s a pretty good listener.”
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On a different topic, if you have not seen the “Donald and Hobbes” comic strip, here’s the link. I would bet Bill Watterson had no clue he was depicting Donald Trump with such eerie accuracy when he thought he was creating a mischievous six-year-old. This is at once amazing, hilarious, and disturbing. Take a look.