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Ezra Klein on a key to understanding Hillary Clinton

Ezra Klein of Vox takes a deep (and fairly weird) dive into both Clinton’s style and substance, in a long piece that I found helpful in understanding the kind of president she might be.

Hillary Clinton speaks to the General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church during their annual convention in Philadelphia on Friday.
REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

Personally, I’m sick to death of discussions of Hillary Clinton’s “likeability.” She’s not running to be your best friend; she’s running to be president. And yes, I know that her “likeability” challenges have something to do with her “electability,” but that, in my view, is about the shortcomings of swing voters who use “likeability” as a short-cut because they can’t be bothered to think through policy positions, record in office and actual governing skills. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Ezra Klein of Vox, a journalist I have admired since his Washington Post days, takes a deep (and fairly weird) dive into both Clinton’s style and substance, in a long piece (included several embedded videos taken during his interview with Clinton) that I found helpful in understanding the kind of president she might be.

Klein prepared for the interview by talking to a lot of people with a lot of government experience and Hillary Clinton experience about her attributes and specifically about the qualities that, according to these people, explain why she is a bad campaigner who will make a good president. Writes Klein:

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.

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Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.

Hillary Clinton launched her 2016 campaign with what she called a “listening tour.” Klein admits that (like me) he assumed such a “tour” is – like much of politics – phony, designed, in this case, to communicate that the candidate actually cares what average people think about the country’s problems and its prospects. But Klein’s sources have convinced him, and he has halfway convinced me, that listening is large and vital step that Clinton uses in her “process.” If you’re skeptical, as I was, read the whole piece. I’m not guaranteeing you’ll believe them, and I’m not sure I do, but Klein seems to and fills the piece with examples of Clinton using what she has heard to inform what she has done, down to some minute details.

Klein takes it as practically an established fact that Clinton is not so great at what other politicians do well, which is talking in a way that seems sincere, that makes people like them. He writes:

Modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking. So imagine what a campaign feels like if you’re not entirely natural in front of big crowds. Imagine that you are constantly compared to your husband, one of the greatest campaign orators of all time; that you’ve been burned again and again after saying the wrong thing in public; that you’ve been told, for decades, that you come across as calculated and inauthentic on the stump. What would you do?

Klein plays the gender card pretty frankly. Women are better at listening and at building relationships. Men are better at talking and bragging. He even suggests that Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders for the nomination is about a victory for female leadership style over male leadership (this reduces Sanders to a guy who is good at talking but bad at relationships, and would seem to greatly overlook the enormous advantages with which Clinton began the contest and the disadvantages with which Sanders began).

My own biggest problem with Clinton has never been her speaking or her listening style; it was her vote to authorize the Iraq war. I would love for her to someday do a better job than she has to date of explaining how that happened, and to deal with all the known facts including her vote against the Levin Amendment, which would have increased pressure on Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. inspectors back Iraq in order to avoid war.

But – and to me this was a huge stretch – Klein decided to explain Clinton’s Iraq vote as more evidence of how committed she was to listening. Writes Klein:

Clinton’s great mistake, her vote for the Iraq War, is an object lesson in the dangers of listening to the wrong people. ‘If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons,’ she said, having listened to the wrong intelligence assessments.

She justified her vote by saying she had listened to President Bush and she would trust him — ‘I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible’ — and there is probably no sentence she has uttered that she regrets so bitterly.

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But of course, this wasn’t a flaw of listening, it was a flaw of believing the wrong person — if, that is, one takes seriously that Clinton cast that vote in the belief that Bush would use it not as permission to start a war but as a way to get a vote at the United Nations that would prevent the war.

(By the way, Donald Trump, who claims to have opposed the Iraq War in advance, has failed to produce any evidence to back that up, and there is evidence on the record that he supported the war.)

And lastly, Klein says there is one group that has lost Clinton’s ear, namely, the news media. Writes Klein:

There’s one group Clinton absolutely can’t stand hearing from: the press. She believes the media offers wall-to-wall coverage of trumped-up non-scandals that ultimately prove hollow. She resents the fact that when the stories finally fall apart, the press just moves on, but the damage lingers in the public’s view of her. And, well, she’s right. Whitewater, Travelgate, Benghazi — there’s no politician who has been at the center of so many scandals that have turned out to be worth so little.