The recent release of Hillary Clinton’s White House schedules has reignited the debate surrounding her presidential experience. What the media seems to be missing is that the schedules do not shed much light on the question.
Of course, Hillary seems intent on exaggerating even when clear evidence exists. This week she was forced to admit that she “misspoke” when claiming that her 1996 Bosnia visit involved sniper fire. When a journalist pointed out that video of the event clearly contradicted her story, she claimed to have misspoken but offered no reason for the oversight.
But even outside of this episode, her larger claims of experience are problematic in important ways. Her time in the White House may have included unprecedented influence for a First Lady, but only as an unelected and un-appointed (and thus unaccountable) adviser.
Secondly, her involvement – with the exception of her spectacular failure during the health care debate – was mostly political and unrelated to the kind of executive leadership expected of the president.
Hillary’s attempts at being “co-president” were wrapped up in her complex relationship with her husband and contributed in key ways to the dysfunction of the administration.
When you are an elected or appointed official there are clear lines of authority and accomplishment. When you are a behind the scenes force, as Hillary was, you may wield influence but you can’t claim experience.
The one time she was given formal authority (the health care task force) revealed not only her lack of executive management skills but the problematic nature of having her play such a role. If a cabinet member or high level staffer fails in carrying out the president’s goals then they can be asked to resign. If the president’s spouse fails what happens?
After the health care debacle Hillary did the only thing she could do and she retreated toward more traditional First Lady duties. Does this mean she stopped being involved in her husband’s work? No, but it meant her role would never be formal again.
After the health care failure, Hillary was still involved in the administration, though not as a major policy advisor. Rather she became as a self-appointed political defender of her husband’s, and her, interests. She didn’t provide substantive policy advice so much as act as a uniquely positioned political staffer.
Hillary frequently, and often harshly, castigated White House staff when she felt they weren’t serving her husband well. She was often the first person to organize crises management teams to defend her husband and attack his enemies. And she often carried a sort of veto power over critical decisions about appointees and staffing.
One can argue about the wisdom of her advice – much of it was stubborn, overly antagonistic, and harmful – but it is hard to make the argument that this rises to the level of presidential experience. If it is then a host of former White House staffers and advisors are be qualified to be president.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out that this power was connected in perverse ways with her relationship with her husband. Because she was the designated political defender, and enabler, of the president, when he was most vulnerable she wielded the most power. When she was down he felt free to act, and when he screwed up she rose in stature.
It is worth pointing out that Americans were at the time, and continue to be, concerned about a dynamic of this nature, a concern held by many today. Accountability is critical in a democracy and having a key advisor and participant that is unaccountable, and who has “unique” leverage, is a recipe for disaster. This is the rationale behind anti-nepotism laws.
Read any of the copious books covering the Clinton administration and you will find that Hillary was a divisive and disruptive figure who played no small part in the stumbles of the administration.
All of this explains the difficulty she is having in proving that her White House experience counts. Her role was highly unconventional, mostly political and deeply entwined with the dysfunctions and foibles of the Clinton White House.
It should also send a clear warning about the advisability of having Bill Clinton back in the White House.
The bottom line is that Hillary was mostly an inside political operative whose chief accomplishment was the survival of her husband’s presidency and the launching her own political career.
This surely qualifies as unique experience, but it is anything but presidential.
Of course, neither is losing an argument about your foreign policy credentials with Sinbad.