Hillary Clinton and the hard choice of centrism

Anne Applebaum finds little merit in Hillary Clinton’s book Hard Choices from a policy or historical standpoint. She contends, however, that it provides insight into how candidate Clinton will portray herself over the next two years, and perhaps into the kind of president she would be.

Applebaum is surely right to suppose that Hard Choices has much to tell us about how Clinton intends to present herself during her campaign for the presidency (assuming she runs). Indeed, Hard Choices is Exhibit A in the Clinton’s campaign self-presentation.

What, then, does it tell us? According to Applebaum:

[It] is possible to make a few good guesses about what kind of candidate Clinton hopes to be: deeply non-ideological, a centrist. She intends to run as a hard-working, fact-oriented pragmatist—someone who finds ways to work with difficult opponents, and not only faces up to difficult problems but also makes the compromises needed to solve them.

I agree that this is the kind of candidate Clinton would like to be. Running as an out-and-out liberal is never a good idea. After two terms of President Obama, it could prove fatal.

But pulling off a centrist campaign may be difficult for Clinton. If she faces a serious challenge for the Democratic nomination, she will probably feel compelled to veer left. After losing to Obama in 2008, Clinton will not want to risk again being badly outflanked ideologically.

As for the general election, Clinton will be tempted to rely on the coalition that elected Obama twice. This means turning out the left-wing base. Non-ideological centrism and pragmatic compromise are not well-suited for this purpose.

Applebaum leans too hard on her reading of Hard Choices when she seems to suggest that it tells us much not just about a Clinton campaign, but also about a Clinton presidency:

Clinton wants to be the politician who will rise above the partisanship that has hamstrung the Obama administration, end the gridlock in Washington, cut deals, and move forward.

In order to do this, she will transform herself into a figure of benign neutrality. Unlike Obama, she will not inspire, but she will also not enrage.

It’s possible that Clinton does, in good faith, want to rise above partisanship; I suspect she does. But we’ve seen enough of her to know that the first time someone crosses her or causes her to feel embattled, she will revert to form and lash out with venom. Nor will this be hard choice for her.

I give a President Hillary Clinton “Era of Good Feeling” one week.

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