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Ezra Klein on a key to understanding Hillary Clinton

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

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Brad James on 07/11/2016 - 04:49 pm.

    The Iraq War was the singular disaster of the 21st century. Hillary Clinton advocated and voted for it. It is very American that we can gloss over this fact and reward people who commit atrocities. Perhaps Hillary should go on a listening tour of northern Iraq.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/11/2016 - 09:33 pm.

      The worst that Clinton can be accused of

      is believing the then President of the United States.
      The atrocities were committed by those in the field, and by those giving them orders — ultimately the Commander in Chief. Lets see …. who was that?
      Sanders comes closer to being an unconditional pacifist, but I doubt that anyone could be elected President on that position.

      • Submitted by Brad James on 07/12/2016 - 09:14 am.

        She voted for a war that killed between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis. That is blood on her hands and all the members of Congress who voted in favor. To be clear, the blood is especially on the hands of those in the Bush White House.

        Her support of a No Fly Zone in Syria, her aggressive posturing toward Iran, her sale of billions in American made arms to the KSA which are now being used to murder Yemeni civilians, the list goes on about her cavalier attitude toward the safety of others around the world. She is of the persuasion that military intervention is always preferable over inaction. The Iraq War demonstrates how disastrous this thought can be.

        I get that Hillary has gotten a disrespect and criticism over the years for things that are immaterial (Whitewater, e-mail servers, etc) but one does not have to pull back the curtain to see she is a hawk and a neo-liberal. But it is not hard to understand why people do not like a robotic multimillionaire who doesn’t stand for anything.

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 07/11/2016 - 06:47 pm.

    How about Russian “re-set’ button and Arab Spring?

    Couldn’t have misread those 2 situations worse. Arab Spring turned into a safe haven for ISIS to grow and Russians invaded their Western neighbors with impunity. Doesn’t your record and decision making come into play when pursuing the highest office in the land?

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/11/2016 - 07:03 pm.


    Bush and Cheney should have to walk through Iraq asking residents how they did?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/11/2016 - 09:35 pm.

    It’s that last paragraph

    Mrs. Clinton suffers from the same handicap in this household that she does in the Black household: that vote in favor of military operations in Iraq. It’s a serious flaw in a candidate I’d love to be able to be more enthused about. She’s certainly far more qualified – degrees of magnitude more qualified – than the presumptive Republican nominee, and that alone would have me leaning in her direction in the voting booth.

    Beyond that, however, and because I’m so old I can remember all of them, it’s that last paragraph in Eric/Klein’s piece that resonates especially strongly. She has been the subject of snide whispers and a genuine right-wing conspiracy (while being ridiculed for stating that it exists, even though it does) for much of her adult life. None of the supposed “scandals” for which she’s been investigated – and chastised at length in mainstream (and of course, in right-wing) media outlets – has, as Eric stated, turned up anything genuinely scandal-worthy about her actions regarding Whitewater, Benghazi, “Travelgate,” etc. There’s no “there” there. While hardly pure as the driven snow, Clinton has been – has HAD to be, precisely because she’s been under a media microscope for so many years – about as ethical and straightforward as other national politicians.

    One of the worrying downsides of that media scrutiny may well be, should she actually be elected, a distinct distrust of that same media from the first moment after she takes the oath of office. As ordinary citizens, we will not benefit from an extension of, perhaps an escalation of, the sort of media paranoia that has gripped the Obama White House in recent years. As evidence, I think we need only look at the record in the recent case, not prosecuted by a Republican FBI Director, of her use of a private email server when Secretary of State. The primary advantage of using a private server for email is not just convenience (which policy and statute likely don’t recognize as legitimate reasons), it’s to avoid constant media scrutiny of one’s email.

    Indeed, it’s difficult to get past her vote for military operations in Iraq, but the alternative in the race, at least as it currently seems to be constituted, is simply too catastrophic for the nation to be taken seriously. My grandson knows nothing about the world, cannot yet write a cohesive paragraph, and still has tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Those all seem equally true of the presumptive Republican nominee. On my most cantankerous, elderly-white-guy day, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him.

    I can’t base my vote on personality. Mrs. Clinton and I have never met (and are unlikely to), and I can’t say that I’m especially fond of her, though the truth is that I don’t know her personally in any meaningful way. But I don’t want a buddy. I want a capable president, and given the two people at the head of the field at the moment, that choice is a no-brainer. One actually knows how government works. One does not. One has coherent positions on issues. The other does not. One is blatantly racist and sexist. The other is not. One has considerable first-hand knowledge of other societies and political and economic leaders. The other does not. Those differences are not slam-dunk guarantees that no mistakes will be made – no president of whom I’m aware has managed to avoid error completely, and certainly not in the post-WW II world – but mistakes seem far more likely when the executive in question has no – as in zero – experience on either the national or the international stage.

    No one runs for the presidency without an ego to match the office, so that factor seems a wash, and both are not above massaging the truth a bit from time to time, so that seems a wash, as well. To a degree, at least, I hope Mr. Klein is correct in his assessment.

  5. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 07/11/2016 - 09:37 pm.

    It seems that….

    Everyone is focused on revisiting history with the gift of hindsight. I recall fairly large and loud clamor for support of the Arab Spring. I also recall loud clamor by some commenters in support of the Iraq war.

    These are not really the issue. This is an election and the choice is simple, do you want an experienced but difficult to like candidate or do you want a bloviating idiot who is completely unsuited to sit in the office and would likely endanger world peace with his constant errors of judgement?

    The third party candidates are not going to win and a vote for them is a vote for Trump. Remember John Anderson? Ross Perot?, Ralph Nader? Or would you like to have a fiasco like we did with Ventura. I doubt many of the above commenters would have made different decisions AT THAT TIME and wih THAT INFORMATION that we all had at that time.

    Remember, Colin Powell was lied to, most grudgingly agreed that war was likely the best choice given the info we all were given . And Hillary represented the state that was attacked and had 2000+ of her constituents murdered.

    The enemy of good is perfect.

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 07/14/2016 - 05:49 am.


      There are plenty of people that saw all of those events for what they were or at least had a personal philosophy that helped them avoid the mistakes Clinton repeats with regularity. Of course they aren’t popular in the moment or famous because they aren’t politicians and aren’t ego driven monsters that require constant public praise as a way of gaining power.

      If we think good is enough it will never get better. The enemy of success is complacency.

  6. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 07/11/2016 - 10:00 pm.

    Clinton’s listening

    On issues of domestic policy, Hillary likely can listen, and there can’t be any question about her broad policy knowledge and expertise — tho that doesn’t mean she is always right. On foreign policy, however, she not only had bad judgment on Iraq, but also on Libya, clearly wants us to put boots on the ground in Syria, and based on who she trusted while Secretary of State, supports confrontational policies against China and Russia. And in the Middle East, she appears to “listen” to some very hawkish billionaires. Better than Trump, yes, but be prepared for more of the same foreign policy we saw with George W. Bush, just presented with a little more polish.

  7. Submitted by Brian Simon on 07/11/2016 - 10:57 pm.

    It is about judgement

    If we concede Klein’s listening hypothesis, the follow-up is: what has Sec. Clinton learned fron that mistake? How foes she vet sources for accuracy?

    Personally I always thought she, Biden, Edwards, Kerry & other Senators wishing to be President made a calculated decision to not appear “weak.” They miscalculated, plain & simple. Though Clinton appears to be among the more hawkish of that group, given the evidence of their subsequent careers.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/12/2016 - 06:17 am.


    Hillary does listening quite well, but I am not sure she hears that well, and so that tends towards the wash. There is also with Hillary, the very serious issue of who she listens to. The email issue is disturbing for a number of reasons, but one of them is that there is apparently no one around her with influence to say, “Hillary, this is a really bad idea.”

    Hillary styles herself as a pragmatic politician. She listens and reacts. She claims she has the ability to cobble together compromises, and will be able to make government. But she does have the vices of her virtues. Connecting with people on a personal level can come at the expense of connecting with them an ideological levels. Hillary has trouble telling us what she is for. One her commercials, she talks about work she did for children decades ago, because she really hasn’t done much recently that she can put forward as a positive achievement. Contrast this with Sanders, a politician who quite literally doesn’t listen at all, but who mounted an extremely successful because he connected with voters on the basis of idea some of them which originated more recently than 1985,

  9. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 07/12/2016 - 09:40 am.


    More war, worse income inequality, guaranteed. She will sign TPP TTIP TISA trade to “save” the economy, nullifying the Constitution. Direct conflict with Russia and China? Regime change this and that. Ezra Klein is a neo-liberal internationalist who is perfectly okay with the ongoing hollowing out of America. Minnpost needs a writer who gets it.

  10. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/12/2016 - 12:44 pm.

    Listening is a skill

    We all know that Donald Trump doesn’t listen to anyone but himself, and the Sunday-news commentators. That’s what he says he consults for foreign policy conclusions, most of which he frames in contradictory sentences anyway, so no one can accuse him of actually having a position on something. And we all know that he simply doesn’t have a campaign staff, even yet, and they can’t get him to focus on message. He’s relying on the national GOP party to get him elected–and some really Fat Cat money!–but he refuses to listen even to the head of the national GOP party about how to present himself.

    You want a president who doesn’t listen to anyone? I don’t, and most Americans do not.

    You can beat this Senate-vote-for-war drum all you want, but Hillary Clinton did not cause the war in Iraq. Nor was her one vote–to support the president’s desire to have military authority to go against Hussein–enough to sway the entire U.S. Senate. She did not cause ISIS to rise (that, too, was Bush’s Original Sin), not is she responsible for the mess that is the Middle East. She’s not Putin’s mother. She was Secretary of State, not President, during Obama’s first term. You think she made policy all on her own? Do you know President Obama at all?

    This election is between someone who we all know can govern well–Hillary Clinton–and one of the biggest jerks that Americans have ever offered up as a major-party candidate. One whom the media have refused to investigate thoroughly and broadly. Double standard (the one that FBI Director Comey states he wouldn’t cross to indict Hillary Clinton for having her own email server: We didn’t indict General David Petraeus, who really did intentionally hand over Top Secret information to his lover, a far worse case than anything Clinton ever did).

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/12/2016 - 01:21 pm.

    Just another PR piece

    If you want to know why people don’t trust Hillary Clinton why don’t you ask them? Instead Klein “interviews” Clinton’s friends and associates as if they’re going to explain something.

    Klein starts with the assumption that Clinton’s low levels of trust are the product of some kind of mis-perception, and never actually deals her dishonesty or history of really bad decisions and conservative orientation.

    Klein is simply a participant in the attempt to create this new narrative that Clinton’s poor performance as a candidate has nothing to do with her qualifications for president it’s this idea that she’ll be a better president than she is a candidate. That’s what they said about G.W. Bush. It’s a bogus narrative because it assumes that voter perceptions are based on her performance as a candidate rather than her history and actions over the last 30+ years. We’re supposed to believe that her vote for the Iraq War (which in-and-of itself is a big enough reason to disqualify her), her decades long support for bad republican policies ranging from health care to anti-crime initiatives and trade deals, and her inability to figure out how handle sensitive information as Secretary of State, are all irrelevant.

    In other words, there’s nothing new here in Klein’s article, it’s just another deflection pretending to be an analysis, it’s a made-up question searching for an answer. There’s nothing mysterious about Clinton’s low approval and trustworthiness ratings. Sure her friends and coworkers like her, and admire her, but as Eric points out, that’s not really a serious question for voters.

    The weird thing about the actual article is that Clinton claims to have had high job approval ratings. Near as I can tell she’s had exactly two real jobs lasting less than a decade in the last 25 years; one of which was Secretary of State, and her approval ratings there are mixed at best. I mean so she got re-elected in NY… Bachmann, got re-elected as well. Who is there that could even have given her a low rating?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/13/2016 - 09:56 am.

      We get it

      You don’t like Clinton.
      But there’s a difference between representing one idiosyncratic district and representing a whole state.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2016 - 01:38 pm.


        It doesn’t look like you do “get it”. It’s not about “liking” or “disliking” Clinton, it’s about having a candidate that can beat Trump and be an effective president once elected.

  12. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/12/2016 - 04:50 pm.

    And the alternative is. . . ?

    Interesting, that there be more than 30 years of attacks on Hillary Clinton, but only a bit more than 10 years of jobs she held in public life: she was U.S. Senator from the hugely-populated state of New York (NOT Minnesota’s weird Anoka-based congressional district that elected Michelle B.), then ran a really good but impossible presidential campaign against our first black candidate, then served four years as his Secretary of State. Nice public record for ten years.

    The other 20 years of attacks? Oh, yeah, that was when she was attacked for being married to the President, after he was a governor.

    In the face of the 2016 alternative in the Presidential campaign, these repeated and insistent attacks on the private life of an indomitable woman seem more and more like those of folks who really cannot stand the mere idea of an indomitable woman at the head of our government.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2016 - 08:22 am.


      Look, Hillary Clinton has had 40 years to shape public opinion and establish her own personal credibility, and this is what’s she’s got. She’s either responsible for that or she isn’t, and the idea that she isn’t: A) Ignores the historical record. and B) Paints her a victim at the mercy of her attackers. Neither of these scenarios establishes her as the best candidate to run against Trump or the most credentialed candidate to take up residence at the White House.

      And about NY: After leaving the White House (Flat broke according to HRC) they move into one of the most expensive zip codes in the country (must have had good credit) and establish residency so Hillary can make her FIRST run for office. Why NY? Why not just Stay in Arkansas? Why not Seattle or Boston? The answer is obvious. Most politicians have to run where they live, they don’t move to a better location where they have the best chance of winning… and then brag about re-elected.

      Sure Franken moved back in order to run here in MN, but he’s originally from here, and he moved back because he thought he could win, not because he thought this was the likely place to win. And at any rate, his is not a typical political story.

      At any rate, whining about Hillary’s popularity and all the attacks she endures isn’t going to get her into the White House.

      As for the choice we had, that’s clear. The problem is democrats decided to run their least popular, talented, and trustworthy candidate apparently simply because they want to see Hillary be Hillary in the White House. All we can do now is hope that democrats having managed to pull defeat our the jaws of victory… again.

  13. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/13/2016 - 01:50 am.

    Words, words, words. These are Clinton’s deliverables.

    This is why her campaign is obsessively focussed on “messaging”.

    In practical terms, Mrs. Clinton has no center, so every opportunity to pander to one or another identifiable group is what passes for substance.

    Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce, as an example, is not worried about Clinton’s actions on the TPP, should she become President, no matter what she or the Democratic platform says during the campaign:

    Likewise, its leadership even more recently spoke in a similar vein: not worried.

    She can afford a bevy of experts on what to say, and when to say it, to comport with her campaign’s “messaging”. There is no more substance than this. She will say whatever is required to get elected, and once in office, it is a completely different matter.

    To expect that she will bring us more war, continued economic inequality, and a continuation of racial inequity, is not to say anything positive about Donald Trump. These are 2 terrible candidates.

    I have to admit that the notions stated above, that she knows how to govern well as an example, is falling on deaf ears here. The opaque governance she is certain to deliver is not what I regard as good governance, not at all. She seems to have not learned the obvious lessons from our failed foreign adventures, which have damaged our fundamental national interests.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/13/2016 - 07:29 am.

    What Hillary does

    Hillary does a lot of things she shouldn’t do. She shouldn’t accept small fortunes to speak to bankers. When she does, she shouldn’t withhold the texts of those speeches. As Secretary of State she shouldn’t have any part of charitable endeavors which accept contributions from interests she deals with as part of her job. Hillary as Secretary of State certainly shouldn’t conduct public email business on a private server. And obviously, she shouldn’t allow here husband to contact the attorney general while she is the subject of a federal investigation. I mean, is Bill really allowed to roam the nation freely on a private jet? Paid for by the campaign? None of this is really disputed by anyone.

    Why Hillary engages in these high risk behaviors is something of a mystery to the rest of us. One reason there is a separate set of Clinton rules applicable to no other politician is that no other politician would do some of the things Hillary does. But a question may we Democrats should ask ourselves is whether we are to some extent Hillary’s enablers? To what extent are Hillary’s high risk behaviors motivated by the idea that she can do these things knowing that her friends will dismiss any criticism of her actions as products of the vast right wing conspiracy, the GOP attack machine?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/13/2016 - 08:37 am.


      When you combine all of those choices with her neo-liberal penchant for regime change, economics for the elite, and support for the Iraq War… you start to form a skeptical assessment of her judgment. And its hard to ignore a record of poor judgement when someone is running for President. One of the most durable qualities that seems to follow Clinton wherever she goes be it as candidate or elected (or appointed) representative is poor judgement.

      Another durable quality that follows her wherever she goes is elitism. The entire neo-liberal agenda Clinton is and has always been a champion of ends up being government of the elite, by the elite, for the elite. The problem is that the majority of voters don’t belong to that elite and are finally rebelling against it. So we’re going to end up with a competition of unpopularity, which unpopular candidate do we distrust the least? All bets are off and if Trump wins you can’t say nobody told you so. Democrats had a choice, they choose poorly.

  15. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/14/2016 - 09:20 am.

    Until the election

    you won’t know what the majority of voters are doing.
    So far it’s just conjecture stirred up with wishful thinking.
    This is the logic that has predicted 20 of the last 3 revolutions.

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/14/2016 - 07:52 am.


    For me, the worrying characteristics are her defensiveness, and her insularity. A lot of her troubles seem to originate in those qualities.

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