Hillary: More Myth Than Reality

J.T. Young Former Treasury Department and OMB Official
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Hillary appears poised to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency — again. “Again” is the problem with such a prediction, and it should raise questions not only unasked, but apparently subconsciously avoided. The core question is whether or not the notion of Hillary Clinton as a political titan is more myth than reality.

By all accounts, Hillary Rodham had a stellar academic career – and a very politically active one. At Wellesley College she was the first student to deliver its commencement address.  She had her pick of Harvard or Yale for law school. When she graduated from Yale in 1973, she had the positive attention of the politically-connected.

However when she faced a choice of political careers, she chose Bill’s, who was running for Congress in Arkansas. From then on, her resume would not be as much her own. While becoming progressively more star-studded, each achievement would be shadowed by her husband and, even more significantly, often marked by an equally big personal letdown.

Living in Arkansas, she joined, and then became the first female partner in, the prestigious Rose Law Firm. However, becoming partner only happened after Bill had become governor.

As Bill Clinton campaigned for president in 1992, he often referred to her as a prime campaign asset – saying voters would “get two for the price of one.” However, her biggest campaign contribution came with Bill on “60 Minutes,” where she defused Gennifer Flowers’ allegations of an affair that threatened to torpedo his election.

In the White House, she was by all accounts extremely powerful, breaking the mold for First Ladies by having a top policy role – heading the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. However, the reform plan that emerged was probably the biggest policy debacle in recent Washington memory. Not only did it not receive a vote in either the House or Senate – despite overwhelming Democrat majorities in both – it was instrumental in Democrats suffering landslide losses that gave Republicans full control of Congress for the first time in four decades.

In her more conventional approach to the role of First Lady her most important contribution was not what she did, but she didn’t do: leave Bill, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Virtually any response, other than that likely would have doomed the Clinton administration, which still had to survive an impeachment. However, surviving in the court of public opinion was a far dicer and more critical undertaking. Hillary alone enabled survival. While saving a marriage, by any means for any reason, is not to be dismissed, still it is not the stuff to which feminist paeans are sung.

After the White House, her Senate career would seem to be her own. But even here, we see less than meets the eye. Granted she ran and won a Senate seat, but this was still based on star power amassed in the White House. She also chose the bluest of blue states in which to do it – not Arkansas, where she had been First Lady first, or Illinois where she had been born. Once in the Senate, she won accolades for not using her star power – she became one of the 100, and accepted a junior role. While that may show laudable restraint, it also does not equate to accomplishments.

Of course, Hillary ultimately had her sights set on a far bigger prize: the White House. Even if set up by Bill’s two terms, success would be an accomplishment so big, so unprecedented, it would eclipse all preceding it. She had a crack staff, enormous amounts of money, establishment backing, unequaled name recognition, and so much momentum that the outcome seemed preordained.  But she lost.

Hillary’s loss in 2008 must surely be one of the biggest upsets in recent presidential primary history. She lost to a freshman Senator and with none of her advantages. She fell behind early in the race and never could really catch up.

Probably the only thing more stinging than losing the nomination was seeing Obama win the presidency – a prize she must have thought was rightfully hers.

From this cataclysmic setback, she again added to her resume, this time with the Secretary of State appointment. Despite being a premier cabinet placement, no one who has held it has won the presidency since Buchanan, almost 160 years ago. You have to excel at it for it to be a springboard. By anyone’s admission, Hillary did not.

Great recent Secretaries of State – Kissinger, Acheson, Marshall – left behind them policies and outcomes that outlived them and charted courses others followed. No one could attribute such to Hillary’s tenure. Even excluding Benghazi, US foreign policy is a laundry list of losses – Syria, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine – and all less than a year and a half since she left office.

After her February 2013, departure from the administration, Hillary found herself a fully private citizen for the first time in three decades. In that relatively short time, she penned her second major autobiographical book, Hard Choices, which essentially catches us up on her life since her first one, Living History, and focuses primarily on her time as Secretary of State.

Reminiscent of Hillary’s other major endeavors, this one was thoroughly planned for success. It acknowledges a three-person “book team” for its creation, reportedly garnered a $14 million advance, and was rolled out with nothing short of a political campaign behind it – including a “Ready for Hillary” campaign bus that has followed book signings and gives out campaign paraphernalia. She scored major publication coups, including a People cover.

However, also like her previous endeavors, success has been elusive. The most newsworthy aspect of the rollout has been Hillary’s mishandling of the issue of her personal wealth.  When the focus of progressives has been on the one percent for some time and income inequality is this administration’s desired mantra, her own substantial wealth (the Clinton’s personal wealth is reputedly $80 million and up) should hardly have been a surprise question to face. Yet with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, Hillary stated that she and Bill “came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt.”

This is surprising given that she reportedly received an $8 million advance for Living History in December 2000. The tone is even more surprising: When your target audience is a mass electorate, many of whom know all too well what “dead broke” and “in debt” mean – particularly over the last few historically slow economic recovery years – trying to make yourself appear as “one of them,” while managing tens of millions of dollars, is hardly wise. Even in her most orchestrated of undertakings, once again Hillary leaves us with the impression of a missed opportunity.

Major successes to her sole name have eluded Hillary, despite unequaled opportunities to attain them. Hillary is undoubtedly a smart and accomplished woman. But there are many of those, and simply being one does not mean you’re qualified to be president.

While her resume is substantial, it is hard to see how the items on it would have gotten there without Bill. Like her blockbuster autobiographies, there is a ghostwritten quality to it.  There is nothing inherently wrong in having gotten an opportunity from someone else – many, if not most, people could identify a break they got along the way to what they accomplished. It is what we do with them that ultimately counts. The problem is that Hillary has not done that much with the breaks she’s gotten.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.