What Margaret Thatcher Can Teach Hillary Clinton

No one ever doubted Thatcher's position--good or bad, right or wrong. Yet it's not always clear any longer where Clinton stands on many issues, beyond women's rights.

Artist Matt Lambert paints a commissioned artwork of Britain's former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at his studio in Brighton, southern England February 1, 2013. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

In her remarkable life, Margaret Thatcher achieved what Hillary Rodham Clinton still wants (or at least what the pundits say she wants): She became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.

In many respects, the two women are profoundly different. Thatcher, who died Monday at 87, was a self-described "conviction politician" and arch-conservative who channeled Milton Friedman and bonded fiercely with "Ronnie" Reagan, her great pal and partner on the world stage as the Cold War came to an end. Oddly enough, she and Reagan personally even came to a similar end: suffering, in their old age, Alzheimer's dementia. And Thatcher became as much of a myth-shrouded icon to conservatives in her country as Reagan has been to America's.

Clinton, of course, has been known through most of her political career as an unabashed liberal; many conservatives still have not forgiven her for her ambitious 1993 proposal to provide universal health care, the liberal bookend to today's much-criticized Obamacare law. And unlike Thatcher, who while never denying her womanhood appeared to stride past it, Clinton has made women's rights her signature issue around the world. It was no accident last week when, in the first speeches she has given since leaving her job as secretary of State, Clinton appeared at two different forums with a singular message: "Let's keep telling the world over and over again that yes, women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights once and for all," she said at the Women in the World summit in New York.

Despite these differences, there are a few things that Hillary Clinton could learn from the career of Margaret Thatcher.

Lesson one: Let people know what you stand for. No one ever doubted Thatcher's position--good or bad, right or wrong. Yet it's not always clear any longer where Clinton stands on many issues, beyond women's rights.

By her own admission, Clinton has traveled a long way politically; what we're not quite sure of is where she is ending up. "I have gone from a Barry Goldwater Republican to a New Democrat," she once said. "But I think my underlying values have remained pretty constant: individual responsibility and community." Yet throughout her career, she has not clarified her philosophy, or how she reconciles the clash between "individual responsibility and community." Where does the It-Takes-A-Village Hillary meet up with the centrist New Democrat who sided with her husband's pro-business policies?

Thatcher, by contrast, always made herself starkly (and some times obnoxiously) clear on the dangers of "socialism" and the lack of a "spine" abroad. Clinton's ambiguity over her early support for the Iraq war hurt her in 2008; and despite her enormous popularity, a similar mushiness could put her presidential prospects in jeopardy in 2016, unless she mounts a whole new effort to define herself. As Thatcher once wrote archly: "What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: 'I stand for consensus?' "

In other respects, the two women share some intriguing similarities. Both are renowned for their toughness ("She's tougher than he is," one close senior aide who worked for both Hillary and her husband, Bill Clinton, once remarked). And like Thatcher, Clinton has proved something of an iron lady as secretary of State, preventing Obama from going "wobbly" (Thatcher's famous admonition to George H.W. Bush as he hesitated over Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990) on a number of issues.

Clinton often played the realist hawk on China, Iran, and North Korea. Obama came to depend on Clinton to hammer Iran (which she declared in a speech in 2010 was becoming a "military dictatorship"), and to harangue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his defiance of U.S. demands for a settlement freeze. It was Clinton who prodded the president into toughening sanctions against Iran to historic degrees of severity. She allied with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 to press for a 30,000-troop surge to address the chaos of Afghanistan, and in 2011 she got the president to support a NATO-led intervention in Libya. It was also Clinton's State Department that was largely responsible for a broad strategic "pivot" to Asia in order to counter China's rising influence, and she personally led the way with a historic trip that brought long-isolated Myanmar into the fold of American partners. In a deft mix of realpolitik and values promotion, Clinton cut a deal that turned the political fate of democracy activist Ang San Suu Kyi into a litmus test for progress, which that country's military-spawned leadership will be asked to demonstrate in order to secure U.S. aid. In an interview with me in 2010, then-national security adviser James Jones credited Clinton with being "one of the articulators of the overall strategy that we all adopted" on both Iran and China.

At the same time, Clinton has developed a reputation for delivering important speeches about political values, in almost Thatcher-like fashion, especially a series of Churchillian-sounding warnings about the "new information curtain" descending on countries that are censoring or shutting down their Internet access.

But as we remember Margaret Thatcher, we are also reminded that America's own Iron Lady has a long way to go in telling the public what kind of a leader she will really be. Ever since her earliest days by candidate Bill Clinton's side--when she earned enmity for appearing to disparage "standing by her man" and then during the wounding years of Whitewater--Clinton has worked hard at being liked. She has largely succeeded. Yet as Thatcher once said, "If you just set out to be liked, you will be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing."