The first question in politics is always what is at stake. The presidency is not awarded by cosmic fiat to the man or woman most fit for the job, but is chosen by the people from among those who choose to present themselves as candidates. Accordingly there can be a number of legitimate criticisms leveled against a candidate without rendering her unworthy of support. If someone were tasked with scouting the nation in pursuit of the most qualified citizen for the presidency, it is unlikely that he would decide that Hillary Clinton is the best person for the job. But the question at hand is not whether Hillary Clinton is the best person for the job, but whether Hillary Clinton is a better person for the job than the other viable candidates — probably Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio. What is at stake, therefore, is whether we will be governed by the best among these candidates or by the worst. Excellence in anyone is rare, perhaps no less so among politicians. That there are no absolutely good candidates does not excuse us from the duty of deciding which among them is most suited for the presidency. I will not attempt here to extensively compare Hillary with her rivals, but to explain why she is worthy of support. I will leave the reader to decide whether it is a strong enough case to prefer her to her opponents.
Like most celebrities, Hillary Clinton considers herself misunderstood. The press delights in portraying her as a contemporary Richard Nixon: cold, secretive, and calculating. Perhaps. Her critics assert that since she exhibits these traits, she therefore lacks the character for the job. Of course most of these critics would vote against her even if they did admire her personally. It is certainly the case that character is of paramount importance when selecting a president — but it is difficult enough to communicate our true character even to our closest friends. Surely we cannot judge what sort of president she would be by considering her missteps and gaffes in isolation, or from only observing her on the campaign trail. It may be the case that she is simply less shrewd than most politicians at disguising her contempt for ‘the game.’ Her weaknesses as a ‘retail saleswoman’ are certainly all the more striking when juxtaposed with her husband’s unaffected, boyish charisma. But it seems unlikely that a person’s character radically changes from their early years. It is imperative to examine Hillary’s life in its totality, and to look at the principles that have consistently governed her conduct — how they began, how they matured, and how she wants to apply them to her presidency.
Hillary’s political awakening began as an adolescent, when one of her high school teachers recommended Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. Upon entering Wellesley, she quickly became active in the College Republicans, where she served as president. But she soon found herself at odds with the Republican Party on social issues and the Vietnam War. In the midst of her transformation from Young Republican to committed Democrat, she told her youth minister that she considered herself “a mind conservative and a heart liberal.”
Soon after graduating from Wellesley, she began law school at Yale, where she met Bill Clinton. After graduation, the two of them moved to Arkansas, where she became the first female partner at the highly prestigious Rose Law Firm, served on the board of Wal-Mart, and briefly taught law. She repeatedly turned down Bill’s marriage proposals, fearful of losing her distinct professional identity. It is not out of the question that she decided to marry Bill when she did primarily for political reasons; she only very reluctantly adopted the roles traditionally assigned to women. This was most evident in Bill’s 1992 presidential campaign, during which Hillary (in)famously offended socially conservative voters by declaring that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies” rather than pursuing a career, and that she was not a “little woman standing by her man like Tammy Wynette.” She quickly developed a reputation as a famously “polarizing” and distinctly modern first lady.
Early in Bill’s first term, Hillary suffered her most embarrassing professional setback. Her utter mismanagement of her husband’s attempts at health care reform resigned her to a more traditional role for the rest of his presidency, and helped pave the way for a sweeping Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. She prudently recast her image as a champion of women’s rights. Perhaps the most admirable of her actions as First Lady was her 1995 speech about women’s rights at a UN conference in Beijing. She dispensed with the diplomatic formalities of not directly criticizing foreign leaders on their soil and all but explicitly challenged the social policies of the autocratic Chinese regime on Chinese soil.
Her 2000 Senate campaign was unremarkable, and she triumphed against a rather unremarkable opponent — but she quickly was embraced by a resounding majority of New Yorkers, to such an extent that no serious challenger emerged in her 2006 race for re-election. Her concrete accomplishments as senator are few, but she served for long enough, and in consequential enough times, that we can discern a general sense of her ideology: domestically center-left, and a ‘liberal hawk’ on foreign policy. She certainly never proposed or supported anything patently unreasonable. Perhaps her worst moment was her opposition to the surge in Iraq, which was instrumental in securing the stability we abandoned in 2011. In general, she was a competent but seldom — if ever — exceptional senator.
Some say that Hillary never risks anything when communicating with voters; that she won’t exhibit the ‘courage of her convictions.’ But this is patently and obviously false: if she had recanted her vote for the Iraq War, loudly and repeatedly, early in her 2008 presidential campaign, it would have mitigated the not-insignificant damage it caused her against Barack Obama, who had opposed the war from the beginning. To the very last primary, she would not disavow her vote. Some might say she was simply trying not to appear weak or indecisive — but if that is the case, she decided she would rather project strength than secure more primary votes against a candidate who was deftly able to make her vote for war an issue. Moreover, she rejected Barack Obama’s populist pandering by arguing against a raise in the capital gains tax. Even today, reporters wonder whether she will hold onto this position, which is unquestionably rejected by her party’s base. Is that a woman who will say anything for a vote? I imagine that progressives will read this and wince — when she sticks to her guns, it seems to more often than not stem from conservative impulses. But the truth about Hillary’s convictions is right in front of our eyes.
As Secretary of State, she of course operated under the direction of President Obama. When judging her accomplishments, or lack thereof, we must remember what was her sphere of influence and what was not. There is no ‘Hillary Doctrine,’ but we know what policies she pressed for, behind the scenes. We know that the humiliating parade of errors that was President Obama’s response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons would not happen in a Hillary Clinton administration. We know that she rejects the notion that America should merely respond to events as they happen. We know she believes that a foreign policy that seeks nothing but stability is insufficient and morally base. We know that she does not hold delusional, romantic views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we know that she does not think Benjamin Netanyahu is the reason why there is no Palestinian state. In a word, we know that her sense of moral clarity is vastly superior to President Obama’s. A Hillary Clinton administration would be good for the Democratic Party on this count, and would therefore be good for the country as a whole, since this would see both political parties more sharply focused on what is at stake on the world stage. Her frequently-cited extensive travel — one of her favorite points to make to reporters — is not a policy accomplishment, but it is a practical advantage against someone like Jeb Bush when it comes to making judgments about foreign policy. If a new crisis breaks out in the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, or North Africa in 2017, nobody will doubt that she is familiar with the key players or the details of the issues at hand.
Taking the whole of her life into account, we see a woman who avoids extremes, accepts the reality of the persistence of power politics in both domestic and foreign affairs, and is animated by a sense of purpose — the sort of purpose that we can anticipate will grant her the confidence to advocate as president for American greatness in word and deed. She embraces liberal principles without sliding into progressive dogma; she is no European-style social democrat. She is without a doubt a flawed politician, and perhaps is even more flawed as a campaigner — and there is of course no guarantee that her presidency will be successful — especially considering that Republicans will still own a commanding majority in the House, if not also the Senate. But from among the available options, Clinton seems best-prepared for the duties of the job, and I am happy to support her.