By Peter Beinart
Substantively, I’m not sure I agree with Hillary Clinton’s attack Friday on Edward Snowden. But it offered a model for how she might run for president far more effectively than she did in 2008.
What Hillary conveyed in her answer was something she rarely conveyed when running for president last time: authenticity. Back then, her efforts to appease a base embittered by her support for the Iraq War without giving the GOP any ammunition it could use against her in the general election made her often appear hyper-programmed and hyper-cautious, if not downright cynical. Her Waterloo came during an October 30, 2007, debate in Philadelphia when she refused to either support or oppose New York State’s plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Eleven days later, Barack Obama eviscerated her at a Democratic Party dinner in Iowa, declaring that “not answering questions because we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do .… Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do.” She never recovered.
Speaking on Friday about Snowden, by contrast, Clinton did not sound poll-driven at all. She said something some liberals will not like—that America needs to spy and that Snowden’s motives are suspect—but which she undoubtedly believes. It sounded authentic because her natural instincts are to see the world as a Hobbesian place and to defend America’s governing institutions against those on the right or left who would delegitimize them. After two decades working at the highest levels in Washington, she can’t run credibly as a Ron Paul- or Elizabeth Warren style-populist, telling Americans their government is predatory and corrupt.
What she can do is explain that the decisions a president makes are hard and complex, but she has the smarts and toughness to make them really well. That’s what she did in her answer Friday. She insisted that even before Snowden’s revelations, top Obama officials were already trying to safeguard Americans’ privacy: “The president actually had given a speech and many of us were beginning the process of trying to figure out, more than 10 years after 9/11, what we needed to do to make sure we got our liberty-security balance right.”
But she implied that Snowden and his supporters don’t understand that balance because they don’t understand the threats America faces. She didn’t just say the world is dangerous, she deployed the kind of detail that someone like Warren and Paul could not. “When I would go to China or I would go to Russia,” she explained, “we would leave all my electronic equipment on the plane with the batteries out, because this is a new frontier and they’re trying to find out not just about what we do in our government, they’re trying to find out about what a lot of companies do and they were going after the personal emails of people who worked in the State Department. It’s not like the only government in the world that is doing anything is the United States.”
It was a good example of how to turn Clinton’s Washington-insider status into a strength. Instead of simply asserting that her government experience would be an asset, she deployed the kind of example that people remember.
Because she said what she really believes, she sounded authentic not only in substance, but in style. Clinton’s not a great inspirational speaker. When she lapses into ostensibly uplifting generalities, she often sounds canned. In her Snowden answer, by contrast, she displayed her natural voice: wonky and blunt. Like her husband, and more than Obama, she thrives when talking about the details of policy. And when she gives direct, unhedged answers like she did on Friday, she comes across as tough without having to say she is. She was even funny, mocking the fact that Snowden called “into a Putin talk show and says, ‘President Putin, do you spy on people?’ And President Putin says, ‘Well, from one intelligence professional to another, of course not.’ ‘Oh, thank you so much!’ I mean really.” Presidential candidates don’t often risk sarcasm, but it worked in this case because it sounded like the real Hillary.
In his 2012 book Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes usefully divides American politics between “institutionalists” who think Americans should trust government more and “insurrectionists” who think they should trust it less. Hillary’s clearly the former. In 2008, however, she couldn’t run effectively as one because after eight years of George W. Bush, Democratic rage at Washington was sky-high. In 2016, given the grouchy public mood, running as an “institutionalist” still won’t be easy. But in her Snowden answer, Clinton showed how to do so in a way that makes her look capable and sincere and her insurrectionist opponents look irresponsible and dangerous. Given that she’s more likely to face an insurrectionist like Rand Paul in 2016 than an institutionalist like Jeb Bush, that may prove a very useful skill indeed.