U.S. Election

The Clinton Moment

hillary clinton kate boens 3yrs old le claire iowa april 14, 2015 source jennifer dewitt quad city times zuma dpa
Hillary Clinton during her cross-country van tour on Tuesday, April 14, in Le Claire, Iowa, where she stopped to chat with three-year-old Kate Boens.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Hillary Clinton’s campaign is benefiting from the fact that she is practical and tactical, everything President Obama isn’t, and America has a track record of electing leaders who are the opposites of their predecessors.

  • Facts


    • As First Lady, Mrs. Clinton’s healthcare reform efforts ran into a brick wall of congressional opposition, forcing President Bill Clinton to drop it.
    • Mrs. Clinton, as a U.S. senator and Secretary of State,  is combative and resilient, rebounding from personal setbacks caused by her husband and partisan adversaries.
    • As U.S. president, Mrs. Clinton would preside over the world’s largest economy and military and be a key political partner to Angela Merkel.
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If you were asked to describe Hillary Clinton in a word, “woman” probably wouldn’t be the first one to come to mind.

This is not to say Mrs. Clinton isn’t feminine or lacks empathy. But her thinking doesn’t revolve around femininity.

The consistent thread in her biography is her ability to pull herself up after falling down, again and again.

The inner core of her personality is marked by a determination to acquire power. She is the lioness of American politics, preparing to pounce on the White House once again.

There is something unconditional beating in Mrs. Clinton’s heart. She doesn’t just accept conflict – she seeks it out.

The 67-year-old is a fighter. It would be unfair to call her callous, but she is certainly tough, a trait honed to a sharp point in the blast furnace of two decades of nonstop partisan struggle. You don’t have to be a neurologist to know that she has nerves of steel.

Of course, she is also capable of shedding tears, but only, it seems, if it’s worthwhile.

It happened once, in the winter of 2008, shortly after her brutal defeat in the Iowa Democratic primary by a then-relatively unknown junior senator from Illinois named Barack Hussein Obama just hours before the next polls were to open in New Hampshire.

While Mr. Obama touched the souls of Iowans, Mrs. Clinton seemed to have gotten stuck in their heads, and not in a good way.

Her only option, at that point, was an emotional outburst, live on CNN.

Voters experienced Hillary’s emotional side for the first time. What a sensation! Her well-placed tears were a smart political investment, and Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in Iowa was followed by her triumph in New Hampshire.

The 2008 campaign was a reflection of her life.

It appears that for Hillary Clinton, the total defeat she has experienced again and again is merely a training camp from which to launch her next bid for power. One of the Republican Party’s favorite slogans is: “Surrender is not an option,” a reference to the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan.


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After being defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton served as his secretary of state from 2008 through 2012. Here, at President Obama’s 2008 inauguration party. Source: DPA / epa Andrew Gombert


But in reality, the slogan more aptly describes the life of Hillary Clinton, for whom surrender is truly not an option.

If we take the words she uses most often at face value, they provide us with an introduction to how this woman thinks and feels: “tough decisions, hard choices, fighting forward.”

She survived the public execution of her marriage during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and remained at Bill’s side, what she in typically understated fashion called a “tough decision.”

At the request of her husband, the 42nd U.S. president, she devised a healthcare reform proposal that would have guaranteed all Americans access to medical care for the first time.

But she was forced to look on as, amid strong Congressional opposition, he tucked away her plan for reasons of political expediency. In an ironic finale of sorts, she helped the man who had stymied her White House ambitions, Barack Obama, implement his version of the plan — and take the credit for it — almost two decades later.

Since then, 41 million Americans have health insurance for the first time.

She suffered a painful defeat in the 2008 Democratic primary, only to secure the position of foreign secretary in Mr. Obama’s administration. She left the Obama cabinet after his first term to return to the campaign trail and prepare a second bid for the White House at 69, at an age only Ronald Reagan dared to run for the country’s highest office.

If political grappling were an Olympic sport, she would have won several gold medals. And if the partisan battles had left behind visible traces, her face would be covered with scars.

The grand prize, the goal of all her political exertions, is not some trophy in the bonfire of the vanities.

It is nothing less than the Office of President of the United States located in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, still the most powerful institution in the modern world of nations.

It appears that for Hillary Clinton, the total defeat she has experienced again and again is merely a training camp from which to launch her next bid for power.

That very same U.S. president presides over the world’s largest economy, with a gross domestic product of $17.4 trillion (€16.2 trillion), a country whose businesses earned 10 times as much as all German companies combined in 2014.

The U.S. president commands the world’s most powerful military, with 1.43 million soldiers, 14,000 aircraft, about 300 warships and 7,300 nuclear warheads. And thanks to his dominance over the Federal Reserve Bank, which, unlike the European Central Bank is a government agency, the president of the United States can even print his own money.

The dollar is his magic potion.

Mrs. Clinton’s chances of entering the Oval Office in January 2017 are significantly better than they were the first time around. This has less to do with her than with the mechanics of power that are shaping the course of American presidential elections.

Virtually every new holder of the office is an echo of his predecessors, with hawks following doves and tax-cutters succeeding big spenders. This is simply a consequence of the dialectics of democracy.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man obsessed with planning, whose New Deal launched the American social welfare state, was a response to the economic laissez-faire of Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression.

East Coast scion John F. Kennedy was followed after his assassination by a pro-labor Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, who bought the most triumphant election victory in American postwar history with his “Great Society” social programs.

Richard Nixon, the Watergate eavesdropper and wrong-doer, prepared the way for do-gooder Jimmy Carter.

There would have been no Bill Clinton without warmonger Ronald Reagan, just as the youthful, artful compromiser from Arkansas prepared the stage for the hawkish George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush junior, in turn, was the biggest vote-getter for Mr. Obama, because the social organizer from Chicago was the opposite of everything his predecessor had stood for: Harvard instead of Texas, empathy instead of cynicism, hope instead of the eternal fear that Mr. Bush seemed to relish spreading.


hilary clinton benjamin netanyahu september 2010 Sharm el Sheik Egypt Source dpa photo alliance el khaled
Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu in September 2010 during peace talks in better times. Mrs. Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State sparred openly with Mr. Netanyahu over his settlement policies and treatment of the Palestinians. Source: DPA / Photo Alliance / el Khaled


The political poetry of Barack Obama – “hope, change, soft power” – struck a chord in the wake of President Bush’s talk of “preemptive strikes,” his never-ending “war on terrorism” and, finally, “water boarding,” a method of torture that simulates drowning.

It was a chord so powerful that a man without experience, without life achievements and initially without influential friends was celebrated as a savior.

And now comes Hillary Clinton.

America’s disenchantment with Mr. Obama again is providing a persuasive narrative for her current election campaign, her last shot at grabbing the golden ring of world power.

In the wake of Mr. Obama, a frustrated idealist, a pragmatic political virtuoso is entering the room. America seems to be ready for realpolitik once again.

Mrs. Clinton’s advantage is that she can lower the bar of expectations. Her promise is that she won’t make any promises. Her platform is calm, composure, confidence and experience. While Mr. Obama promised everything under the sun, her message is more down to earth.

She also stands behind her words. Everyone can see she means what she says. And those who can’t, can read about it in her book, “Hard Choices.” In it, she describes how she read the riot act to the most obstinate political leader in the West, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a 45-minute telephone conversation with “Bibi,” as she calls him, Mr. Netanyahu was forced to listen to her speak for 43 minutes.

She disapproves of his settlement policy and his harsh tone in dealing with the Palestinians. End of story. Her relationship with Mr. Netanyahu was difficult after that, says the former general consul in New York, but not poisoned the way it has become with Mr. Obama.

The two men didn’t even shake hands during the Israeli leader’s latest visit to Washington.

The low point in Washington’s relationship with Israel is only one of many low points of the Obama years. The community organizer from Chicago who began his White House career on a wave of idealism has failed to improve his country’s image, and the world he leaves behind is in turmoil.

Islamic terror is flourishing, more than 50 million people are displaced. Moscow and Washington are entering a new ice age, and trans-Atlantic relations have become gridlocked in a sticky mixture of annoyance and suspicion.

The euphoria that welcomed Mr. Obama when he spoke at Berlin’s Victory Column in 2008 has given way to apathy. Many who hoarsely chanted “Yes we can” in those early, heady days are now estranged and strangely muted, ashamed of their gullibility.

America is fighting a war on multiple fronts, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Anyone who sees success on any of these fronts must be a morphine addict. Close to 300,000 people – including 2,000 U.S. soldiers – have died in America’s war zones since Mr. Obama came to office.

The wars have cost almost $1 trillion during the Obama years. And the president himself? He is showing all the signs of overload. If Mr. Obama were an ordinary employee, the company doctor would diagnose him with burnout syndrome.

The country hasn’t managed to gain a single friend during his presidency. Even the famous “reset” of Russian-American relations ended in speechlessness.

Mr. Obama expelled Russian President Vladimir Putin from the G8 after Russia invaded Crimea.

America's disenchantment with Mr. Obama again is providing a persuasive narrative for her current election campaign, her last shot at grabbing the golden ring of world power.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now in charge of diplomatic rapprochement. Rarely has a U.S. president isolated himself so unnecessarily.

America’s standing in the Arab world isn’t any better today than it was in the Bush era. The withdrawal from Iraq (in 2008, Mr. Obama said: “I will end this war”) was followed by a new invasion in June 2014.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Mr. Obama has failed to establish a relationship with his own military and its leaders.

“He distrusts the generals, he doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who resigned. His successor is also no longer in office.

Instead of sparking enthusiasm, Mr. Obama nowadays arouses a feeling, even among some of his supporters, that is actually inappropriate for a sitting U.S. president: pity.

Some would say that foreign policy isn’t his strength, and that he earned his merits in domestic policy.

But contrary to initial hopes, he failed to reconcile American society. The economic divide between rich and poor is bigger than ever.

It is no accident that a book like “The Unwinding” by George Packer won the National Book Award and remained a bestseller in the United States for months.

The America Mr. Packer describes does not jibe with what Mr. Obama promised: “No one can say when the unwinding began – when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way,” the book states. “That faith in a common future is no longer valid. That the historic plural became a singular.”

No improvement can be expected from the politics-as-usual being practised today. The political camps are irreconcilable, unlike the days of Presidents Bill Clinton and even his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush.

A toxic cloud of ill will and political acrimony hovers like a choking smog between Capitol Hill and the White House, blocking progress on any number of fronts. Intentional misunderstanding, the effort to injure and bait one’s opponent, has become fashion, even sport.

Although Mr. Obama embodies the yearning for consensus, national confluence and a political cease-fire, he has been unable to translate his vision into policy. He has remained what he always was: a gifted speaker and flexible dancer on the media stage.

But in the engine room of politics, where interests are screwed together and compromises are forged, he has achieved almost no lasting success he can call his own. In a democratic society, politics is a balancing of competing interests, not an exorcism of unwanted initiatives. Ideas need subtlety, experience and power before they can be implemented.


hilary clinton and angela merkel in the German chancellory on April 14, 2011 Source dpa
Coming soon to a press conference near you? Hillary Clinton with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in April 2011. Source: DPA


Or as sociologist Max Weber once said: “The idea doesn’t replace the work.”

At this moment, Hillary Clinton is making her entrance. Unlike Mr. Obama, she begins her campaign with a durable network of acquaintances and confidants in the corridors of power, at home and abroad, including Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, German Chancellor Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Hillary Clinton is a global insider.

Where Mr. Obama often did little more than sniff at the world – curious, charming but unknowing – she is the first presidential candidate who can be described as a citizen of the world. She doesn’t need to get a passport first before leaving America.

She can’t just rattle off the names of every country on earth while half asleep; she also has the telephone numbers, faces and anecdotes to back up her experiences.

During the campaign, no one will ever ask her if she has ever been to Europe or how often she has been to France.

She would be unable to answer such questions because she stopped counting long ago.

During her term as secretary of state, she traveled to 122 countries, and as First Lady and during eight years as a U.S. senator, she also traveled extensively abroad.

She would be the first president who doesn’t need the first 100 days in office to get a handle on world politics. She already has one.

She has also been privy to the secret dossiers of America’s intelligence services – the CIA, NSA and FBI – for decades. She is familiar with both sides of power, the public tribune and the one in the shadows, where deals are made.

Six of her predecessors as secretary of state – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan – have made it into the White House.

And if the U.S. Constitution had not barred all foreign-born citizens from running for president, Henry Kissinger, born in the Bavarian city of Fürth, would also have run for president – or at least he says he would have.

He believes that Hillary Clinton would be “a good president,” a statement that is almost considered treasonous, given that Mr. Kissinger is a staunch Republican and close friend of Senator John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona.

But what does Hillary stand for? What is her platform? Anyone who asks these questions, as The Economist did in a cover story, is pretending to be naïve.

A toxic cloud of ill will and political acrimony hovers like a choking smog between Capitol Hill and the White House, blocking progress on any number of fronts. Intentional misunderstanding, the effort to injure and bait one's opponent, has become fashion, even sport.

The subtlety of the U.S. presidential campaign, with its three structural hurdles – the party primaries, the presidential race itself and the president’s subsequent agenda – lies in committing to as little as possible in Parts One and Two. Those who polarize are likely to lose.

When it comes to the primaries, each Democratic candidate has to impress the left wing of their party. Later, he or she has to somehow tap into the reservoir of the party’s mainstream. The left-wing rhetoric of the primary season then comes hurtling back like a boomerang. The warm applause from teachers’ unions, environmental groups and students has hardly faded before the blowback arrives.

Farmers and industrial workers hear things differently, talk differently and often vote differently than the Democratic left-wing.

But the time has not yet come in the presidential election to reveal one’s true self.

There are good reasons why we will not experience the “real Hillary,” but rather will see and hear an avatar constructed by opinion research and mass psychology. We do not have to approve of it, but should take note: The private truths and public lies are interdependent, at least in American campaigns.

Putin is compared to Hitler in the campaign, and afterwards peace is made with the man in Moscow.

During the campaign, the fears of those opposing globalization are appeased, and the free trade agreement comes later.

Ronald Reagan was the prime example of politics characterized by speaking with a forked tongue. No one railed against the welfare state and the African-American “welfare queens” more than him, only to then substantially increase the social welfare budget.

Since the electoral system in the United States does not provide for formal coalitions, this coalition building de facto takes place during the election campaign. The candidate must cobble together a majority out of dozens of ethnic, geographic and social minorities.

The Obama Coalition, as it is called, consists of very young and well-educated white Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics and women. Hillary Clinton is dependent on inheriting this colorful mix from him, or having him help supply her with it.


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Mrs. Clinton, a wily survivor of private and public crises, can be alternatively blunt and spontaneous, or closed and reserved, depending on the situation. Source: DPA


She herself has the most success with industrial workers, older women and portions of the middle class.

She knows that she cannot manage it alone. She needs her husband, Bill; she needs Obama; and she needs Wall Street, at least when it comes to financing perhaps the most expensive electoral campaign of all time. There is talk of it costing $2.5 billion, which would be equivalent to nearly the annual advertising revenue of all German newspapers combined.

Hillary Clinton also knows from her previous campaigns that large sums of money are of no use if the strategy is unclear and the campaign undisciplined. For decades, she has trusted the expertise of Sidney Blumenthal, who was once a journalist at the “Washington Post,” and later became a senior adviser in the White House.

He wrote the book “The Permanent Campaign,” in which he described how a politician has to be a candidate with every fiber of their being and at every point in their career. They must be undeterred and clever, and if necessary also insidious, because the competition among candidates is also a contest of underhandedness.

“The permanent campaign is the American version of Trotsky’s permanent revolution,” wrote Mr. Blumenthal. “But unlike the Trotskyist revolution, the permanent campaign does not necessarily require idealistic social goals.”

The simple goal is election and reelection and maintaining a high approval rating in between, nothing else. The citizenry of a nation, according to Mr. Blumenthal, “is viewed as a mass of fluid voters who can be appeased by appearances, occasional drama, and clever rhetoric. In the ideology of the permanent campaign the parties are weak, the media is strong and all means are justified.”

Besides Mr. Blumenthal, almost all Clinton loyalists are active in the new campaign.

Larry Summers is advising on economic issues. John Podesta, the chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House and now president of the “Center for American Progress,” will manage the campaign, directing about 900 paid staffers and tens of thousands of volunteers who are supposed to stir things up in the country under the slogan “Ready for Hillary.”

It is slowly getting started. Her base is at home in the middle of the society, where a sense of reality and staidness are not precluded. These voters are not politically agitated, they are concerned about issues. They are dissatisfied, not revolutionary. They are happy if someone listens to them.

Therefore, in the coming months the lioness will not roar, but rather meow. She will act like she is the best friend of the farmer’s wife from Des Moines, the buddy of the automotive worker from Detroit, the docile listener of students at Stanford and elsewhere. Because her greatest opponent is the fame that surrounds her.


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With Russian President Vladimir Putin in happier days. Mrs. Putin recently compared Mr. Putin to Adolf Hitler for Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine. But her confrontational approach has earned her respect from the Russians. Source: Itar / Tass


Her vitality can be impressive, but frightening. An armada of rich, smart and powerful friends adorn her, but at the same time they give the impression that a silent takeover is in the works. This is especially true if Bill Clinton moves into the White House with her, fueling the Republican assertion that such a return would amount to the resumption of a modern-day dynasty.

There will be a lot of mudslinging during this campaign. Sidney Blumenthal immortalized the Clintons’ first term in office in his 822-page magnum opus “The Clinton Wars.” Now he can write “The Clinton Wars, Part 2,” again as author and as a protagonist.

And if everything goes well and Hillary gives her Inaugural Address on The Mall in Washington in January 2017, then this life as a fighter, which has already begun, will really pick up speed.

It is unclear if one would really wish that for her. Or, to close with the words of Mother Teresa, another great campaigner: “Wishes fulfilled often count among the most bitter disappointments in life.”


Gabor Steingart, the Handelsblatt publisher, covered the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign as Washington correspondent for Der Spiegel. He met Hillary Clinton in Berlin in 2003 and followed closely her failed first bid for the White House. To reach the author: steingart@handelsblatt.com

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