Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign Begins When Her Book Hits Stores

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May 29 2014 5:30 PM

America’s Next Decider

Hillary Clinton’s new book is about many things—but mostly why she is ready to be president.

Hillary Clinton
A profile in decision-making.

Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/Reuters

T-minus 12 days and counting until June 10, when Hillary Clinton launches her campaign. That’s the date of the release of her book, Hard Choices, though the campaign has really already begun. On Wednesday a video was posted to the book’s Facebook page in which Clinton explained what she was trying to say. The day before, her publisher released the Author’s Note. Last week Simon & Schuster released a video in which Clinton discussed the writing process. Two weeks ago an excerpt ran in Vogue in which Clinton talked about her mother. The day before Clinton’s book hits stores, Diane Sawyer will sit down to interview the former secretary of state. And on and on the caravan will go. (Modern Dog magazine may have rights to the canine passages.)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It’s hard to know whether this rollout and the book tour that follows are part of a campaign to sell Clinton’s book or the start of her presidential campaign—or if there is any difference. Any politician who writes a book when she still has an election ahead of her is writing a campaign book, and since the book is being launched with the precision and stage management of a modern presidential campaign, we should probably just treat it as the launch of Clinton’s White House bid and not kid ourselves.

As Mark Leibovich pointed out, campaign books are as thrilling as a moist towelette. Our expectations should be low. But based on what Secretary Clinton has said about the book so far, she has ambitious goals. She is going to explain the world and America’s place in it (something the president is trying to do these days, too). She’ll offer a behind-the-scenes view of decision-making in the Obama administration, empathize with the tough decisions people make every day, offer reflections on domestic issues like “the cancer of inequality,” and demonstrate how, by coming together, Americans can make their own hard choices. 

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Can any book achieve all of that? We’ll see. The distance between the claims Clinton is making for the book and what’s actually delivered will likely mirror the gap at the heart of modern campaigns. Candidates seek to define themselves first and make sweeping claims about what they will deliver, but then when it comes to the task, they often don’t.

The biggest disappointment will be if the book is a grand sleight of hand. By naming the book Hard Choices and repeating the title again and again in a public relations blitzkrieg, it will anesthetize people into believing that hard choices were made and that Clinton is the hard-choice-maker, but never actually wrestle with the hard choices in the text.

In 2008 Clinton made the case that she was the most experienced candidate in the race. Her famous campaign ad, in which she asked if Barack Obama would be able to answer a 3 a.m. emergency phone call, was the most evocative part of this claim. But in truth Clinton had no experience answering those late-night calls either. When she told the story of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire as first lady, it turned out to have been an exaggerated claim.

Now Clinton has no shortage of experience. She is presenting herself as a choice-maker—a smarter version of the “decider”—and making that attribute do a great deal of political work for her.

“Keeping America safe, strong, and prosperous presents an endless set of choices, many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives,” she writes in her Author’s Note. Arguing that you know how to make decisions is a good place to start if you’re running for president. That’s what presidents do all day. As every president and White House staffer will tell you: No easy decision comes to the president’s desk. The decisions are thorny because, as President Obama put it to Michael Lewis, “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”

It stands to reason that you would want to have someone in the office who has made those kinds of decisions and understood the complexities of doing so. (Of course, Obama didn’t have that experience before he got the job.)

In her Facebook video, Clinton argues that, knowing how to make decisions abroad, she’s ready to take on the difficult ones at home. “Choices is (sic) at the core of what kind of people we want to be and what kind of countries we want to have,” she says, explaining the message of her book. “And I think that’s especially true here in our own country at this moment in our history, because I do talk about some of the hard choices we face … here at home, to deal with the cancer of inequality, to give people in our country the ladders of opportunity that have always been a hallmark of the United States and the American dream.”

Does decision-making have this transitive property? Governors with no foreign policy experience certainly hope so. So do CEOs who run based on their decision-making ability in the corner office.

Clinton also suggests that the choices she made in office are similar to the kinds of choices people make in their daily lives about their marriages, jobs, and children. Decision-making as an opportunity to make an empathetic connection with voters appears to be part of Clinton’s purpose—making her years as America’s top diplomat dealing with something Americans don’t care much about (foreign affairs) into something personal and relatable to their daily lives.

Nowhere did Clinton make this pitch harder than on The View, when she appeared to say farewell to television legend Barbara Walters. “I want Americans … to really feel in our hearts that the most important thing is how we treat each other and how we think about the future and the future for our children and future grandchildren. And that means we’ve got to be kinder and we have to be more compassionate and empathetic and mindful. That’s not the usual language you use when you’re talking about things like relations with Ukraine or Russia or China or whatever. But it all starts from home. Just like who you are as a person, it all starts from your heart, and so you have to carry that forward.”

Though Hillary Clinton’s book is about her experience traveling to 112 countries, the ultimate destination is the home, the heart, and the ballot box.

Hard Choices
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