Presidents need to be self-confident but not arrogant, focused but not living in a bubble, wise but not too professorial, a leader but not a tyrant. The Christie and Clinton stories offer us an opportunity to examine where ruthlessness should begin and end in the most powerful office in the land.
In New Jersey the ruthlessness of the Christie operation bled over into its abuse of power, but so far there is no connection between Christie and his aides. In the Blair documents, Clinton is ruthless in conversation in a way that we never have seen with Christie. It’s gripping reading, but it’s more figurative than real; Clinton couldn’t abuse power because as first lady she had none. Furthermore, the machismo displayed in private conversations with a friend requires a caveat. It’s possible that Clinton, powerless and under siege, talked tougher on the phone precisely because she couldn’t follow through in real life.
Abuse of power is not the only downside of ruthlessness. The danger is that it can lead to an all-consuming vindictiveness. There is nothing wrong per se with an enemies list of the kind reported in HRC. In a business of leverage and power, it’s almost a best practice. Bill Clinton raised money for Sen. Claire McCaskill, and then she said she wouldn’t let him near her daughter. She also endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. That would seem to be the kind of offense so glaring you wouldn’t need a cheat sheet to remember it. But politics can get confusing. McCaskill has already endorsed Hillary for president in 2016. But there were also lesser officeholders who caused offense who occupied the enemies list spreadsheet, and in ensuing elections for attorney general and Congress, Bill Clinton campaigned in Democratic primaries against candidates who had backed Obama against his wife.
Tending to a list of enemies and ingrates can become a problem if imagining and carrying out retribution become the focus of too many hours in the day. You lose the theme of your office. Before Richard Nixon graduated to abusing power, he was consumed with his political enemies.
So if the question for Christie is whether the culture of easy retribution fostered the excesses of the George Washington Bridge scandal, the question for Clinton is whether the constant attention to allies and enemies can ever become an overwhelming distraction.
It hasn’t in some of Clinton’s relationships. She does not hold grudges when they become impractical, the best example of that being her reconciliation with Barack Obama and her constant and unwavering loyalty to him. She developed a relationship with Gen. David Petraeus, even though she essentially accused him of misleading the country about the Iraq war. In the Blair documents, Clinton even seems to offer a kind word for former Sen. Al D’Amato, whom she nevertheless loathed for his attacks during the investigations into the Clintons’ Whitewater investments.
If you spend all your time erecting battlements, it becomes a prison. This is where President Obama’s Hawaii demeanor helps him, say those who have worked for him. He doesn’t become consumed with combat. One thing that is clear from the Blair documents is that the Clinton White House was a near-constant state of chaotic confrontation. According to Blair, the weight of that siege, and maintaining the constant mask that they weren’t bothered by it at all, is what Hillary says led her husband to have an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But Blair’s notes are from a time capsule: They capture part of Clinton’s worldview from almost 20 years ago, when she responded to the pressure cooker with off-key comments about having chosen a career instead of baking cookies and countered truthful reports by saying they were the product of a vast right-wing conspiracy. She has had two distinct careers since then, in the Senate and the State Department, which show no evidence of the debilitating embattlement that consumed those early Clinton years. But those periods are also obscured, particularly the events leading up to and after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, so there’s still much to be assessed.
Ruthless is not a word associated with Barack Obama’s style of politics. Many of his supporters wish he were tougher with Republicans. As Dan Balz reports in Collision 2012, when Obama’s pollsters held focus groups, they kept hearing people talk about Lyndon Johnson. Voters wanted Obama to embody a little of LBJ’s bareknuckle grit because they thought it would make him more effective with Congress. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes, Obama, like Bush before him, was “neither particularly liked nor feared. Accordingly, neither had many allies in Congress who were willing to go beyond party loyalty, self-interest, or policy agreement in supporting them."
President Obama’s 2008 message of progress through cooperation is not available to candidates in 2016. Instead, the intense partisanship of the day means a successful candidate is likely to have more success convincing voters that cooperation will come through strength and steel. In that case, Clinton, will be making an implicit claim that she is tougher than the man whom she seeks to replace. It will be another pioneering role.