The Hillary Clinton Knockout Game

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 10 2013 11:15 AM

The Hillary Clinton Knockout Game

Six-odd weeks ago, the radio host and author Hugh Hewitt stumbled across the first great gotcha question of the 2016 campaign. His guest was New York-based Politico reporter Maggie Haberman, one of the people tilling the soil early on the Hillary beat. His question: Name some stuff Clinton achieved as Secretary of State.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

"I think that the folks around her believe that among the biggest achievements was, and you’ve seen this pointed to a lot, was the amount of travel time she logged," Haberman said. "They felt very good about the Chinese dissident, and how the disposition of that case went in 2012."

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Hewitt wouldn't let go. "Pause for a moment with me on the achievement side," he said. "Articulate further. What is it that people say is her achievement? That she logged a lot of miles? What, is she running for George Clooney’s role in Up In The Air?" Haberman gave him some more verbiage about what Clintonworld might be worried about. "I’m just curious as to what they think her strengths are, other than, you know, frequent flyer miles," said Hewitt. Haberman kept struggling to give a polite answer.

"She occupied the State Department, and there’s nothing to show for it," said the host. "I guess there’s this Chinese dissident, but I’m, that’s not, that’s not a name that’s tripping off of my tongue right now." (The answer, of course, is 陈光诚.)

I don't see evidence that many reporters saw this interview, but Hewitt did beat the trend and shape the "narrative." Last week, Politico's Susan Glasser captured the new "what did Hillary achieve?" meme by quoting liberally from conservatives (who had an incredible record of foreign policy success from 2001 to 2009, obviously, with far fewer casualties than were recorded in Benghazi) and compartmentalizing Clinton's allies. "Clinton’s advocates tend to come in several camps," she wrote, "which can be broadly summed up as The Timing Just Wasn’t Right group; the Blame the White Housers; and the Asia Pivot Was a Really Big Deal crowd." Old CW: Clinton was a good secretary of state. New CW: Clinton hacks were trying to come up with a way to sell her as a good secretary of state.

Glasser, in her previous role atop Foreign Policy, had run pieces as long as one year ago that made the "Hillary: Not that great" case. But it's one thing to make the argument in a contrarian wonk magazine, and another to make it on Washington's assignment desk. Hewitt, meanwhile, had a stumper for any of his guests from the mainstream media. He tried it out on Mark Leibovich when the New York Times magazine writer appeared on his show last week.

HH: how would you describe Hillary Clinton’s achievements as Secretary of State?
ML: Geez. Look, I think, I don’t cover the State Department. Look, you have that look on your face like you expect me to duck this question.
HH: No, I expect you not to be able to say anything, because she didn’t do anything.
ML: I actually didn’t, I don’t, here’s the deal. I have not written any stories on Hillary Clinton since 2008. How about, what’s like the graceful way to duck a question?
HH: Not even duck, just as if we’re playing Jeopardy!.
ML: Yeah, I honestly don’t know.
HH: Nobody can come up with anything, Mark.
ML: Yeah, let’s see. What did she do? I mean, she traveled a lot. That’s the thing. They’re always like, well, she logged eight zillion miles. It’s like, since when did that become like diplomacy by odometer?

Every one of my nerves starts flaring when, in 2013, we beltway hacks talk about 2016's presidential race. Who's that excited to start covering 15-minute speeches in Greenville and Pella and Concord again? I just point this out because Clinton, once again, is experiencing the agony of the long-distance frontrunner, enduring hundreds of news cycles based on new conventional wisdom, because to hang on too long to the old conventional wisdom makes for dull copy. (And it does! I was sick of "Clinton traveled a lot" stories, too.)

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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