Candidate Hillary and the Road Ahead

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 25:  Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a Democratic Party organizing event on July 25, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. On the first day of the Democratic National Convention, Clinton is campaigning in North Carolina.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I am not a great fan of Hillary Clinton, but I came away from the Democratic Convention proceedings this week with a bit more enthusiasm. It was not so much from what she said in her acceptance address, but rather from what others said about her. She really is an uninspiring politician, as she has ruefully admitted. Even after so many years of toiling in the political vineyards, she simply hasn’t mastered the differences between debate, persuasion and oratory. Some of this is purely technical, some the tonal limitations of the female voice, and some simply seems to be a bit of a tin ear. I wonder why she has evidently never taken expert instruction?

You might argue that this is superficial, that policies and their implementation are what matter. Of course they do, but there are three key attributes of a successful president that overlay those concrete factors to make them feasible and effective. These are the ability to persuade, to inspire and to lead. They are related but different and they are absolutely key to an effective Presidency.

Presidents are not dictators, notwithstanding the ill-informed oratory of Donald Trump. In fact the limitations on their power are even greater than is commonly believed. Harry Truman had the right insight when he reflected about what his successor, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, would discover. Truman mused, “He’ll sit there all day saying do this, do that, and nothing will happen. Poor Ike, it wont be a bit like the military. He’ll find it very frustrating.” I might add that poor Donald would likewise find that he can’t exercise his customary power as CEO or say to virtually anyone who matters, “You’re fired!

If you want to understand what it really takes to be a successful President, there is no better analysis than Richard Neustadt’s treatise “Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents.” it was written some time ago, but his insights remain true.

Of course it helps greatly if the President’s party controls Congress, although, given our sharp political divide, Senate control really means having a 60-vote super-majority. And this rarely happens. Also, even in this circumstance, the panjandrums of Congress have their own agendas and imperatives. They seldom just toe the line. If Hillary returns to her old residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she can expect to face a difficult and strong-minded Congress. Policies will be hostage to the administration’s powers of persuasion, both directly with Congress and in the bully pulpit at large. In this she will likely have to rely heavily upon key members of her team. I think Vice President Kaine will be a big help, as will her husband, and hopefully she will make better executive appointments than did President Obama, many of whom were disastrous interlocutors on the Hill. Unavoidably however, the onus will be on Hillary to carry the weight when needed. We can hope that she will consciously or otherwise sharpen her skills on the job.

I believe that one way to gain insight into the character and likely performance of someone is to hear a friend or associate speak of some small event involving them that really struck a bell. The big items, like policy and leadership, are fairly obvious and have whatever value you assign them based on your own principles and standards. One anecdote I heard was telling, but honestly I am ambivalent about its message. See what you think.

Michael Muzyk, a New York trucking executive, tells the story of one day in 2004 when he accompanied then-Senator Clinton on a mission to promote upstate farmers’ produce. At the state fairgrounds, Hillary got word that her husband had been hospitalized for emergency heart surgery. “I guess you had better go,” Muzyk said promptly, but Hillary surprisingly responded, “No. People have gathered to hear me speak and I mustn’t disappoint them.” We all now know more than we wish about the Clintons’ complicated marital relationship. But this likely was a dire circumstance affecting her life partner and the father of her only child. Was her response a sign of dedication and self-sacrifice, or perhaps was it a cold-hearted calculation of risk and reward?

This is probably not what you or I would have done in similar circumstances, but then we are not likely to serve as President of the United States, for whom events and decisions usually cannot wait upon personal needs and responsibilities. More than any other descriptor for this demanding position, the job comes first. Too much and too many depend upon it.