Everywhere Hillary Clinton goes, a thousand cameras follow. Then she opens her mouth, and nothing happens.
Clinton made a much-ballyhooed appearance in Iowa over the weekend, giving a speech widely noted for its substancelessness. She “had no explicit message of her own,” Politico noted, while The Economist pronounced it “underwhelming.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was so frustrated by Clinton’s lack of verve that he went on an extended rant about it, proclaiming, “I know her and like her, but she puts on that political hat and she’s a robot!” The coverage of Clinton’s speech seemed to contain more meditation about how anodyne she was than reporting of what she actually said.
The Iowa campaign speech that wasn’t a campaign speech (delivered at a "steak fry" that wasn’t a steak fry—the steaks are grilled) followed a year’s worth of nearly newsless Clintoniana. She wrote a book that reviewers unanimously described as stale and safe, valuable mostly for the hints it offered of her future positioning. Reviewing Henry Kissinger’s new book for The Washington Post a few weeks ago, Clinton boldly declared the need for “a real national dialogue” to “take on the perils and the promise of the 21st century,” while dodging any prescriptions of her own for today's vexing foreign-policy dilemmas. Last month, when Clinton caused a firestorm by telling my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg that President Obama’s foreign-affairs philosophy, “Don’t do stupid stuff,” was “not an organizing principle,” he pressed her to name a better one. “Peace, progress, and prosperity,” she said, as though that were any closer to being something you could organize a nation around.
That Clinton is a risk-averse, pragmatic politician has been her hallmark for years, of course—it’s just another way in which her current persona offers nothing new or surprising. Has America ever been so thoroughly tired of a candidate before the campaign even began?
On Thursday, I went to see Clinton in Washington, where she was speaking on a panel about women’s economic challenges at the Center for American Progress. Clinton boldly posited that people who work hard and do their best, particularly parents, deserve economic security. “We talk about a glass ceiling, but these women don’t even have a floor underneath them,” she said of workers who rely on tips. “This is not a women’s issue, this is a family issue, and it certainly is a children’s issue,” she added. “We have to do more to bring these issues to the forefront.”
When it was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s turn to speak, Clinton gazed out at the audience, nodding sagely, seeming to know that all the cameras were trained on her. A laundry list of well-worn leftish ideas, from raising the minimum wage to paid family leave and affordable childcare, was touted. Granted, these are substantive proposals, and they are controversial in some quarters. But they are broadly popular, and the overall message—that women ought to prosper—is almost impossible to disagree with. The discussion’s only spark came from Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator from New York, who made a rousing call to action. “I think we need a Rosie the Riveter moment for this generation!” Gillibrand said, to the event's only applause.
Gillibrand, who replaced Clinton in the Senate, has been ubiquitous lately as she promotes her new book. She has also been touted as a presidential candidate, but always demurs, saying she supports Clinton. Earlier this week, when I pressed her on what she’d say if Clinton doesn’t run, she pronounced the question irrelevant, as Clinton is clearly running. It was Clinton who originally inspired Gillibrand to want to run for office: An Asian Studies major at Dartmouth, Gillibrand was working at a law firm when Clinton gave her famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech in Beijing in 1995. The junior lawyer suddenly felt her path to be inadequate, she told me.
The story was a reminder that Clinton does inspire passion in some people, or did at one time. The Clinton-boosting super PAC Ready for Hillary has signed up more than 2.5 million supporters. Thousands flocked to the Iowa steak fry, if only to catch a glimpse of someone very famous. As Dave Weigel noted, Clinton's boringness is mostly a problem for the press, not the public.
On Thursday, Clinton rushed to echo Gillibrand’s statements. “Kirsten told stories—we could all tell stories about people we know who have been really egregiously impacted by the failure of our political leadership on the other side of the aisle,” she said after an anecdote about a woman whose career never recovered from taking time off to care for an injured child. To the “Rosie the Riveter” sentiment, she added, “We need people to feel that they’re part of a movement. It’s not just an election.”
Clinton is in a bind, as the political scientist Lynn Vavreck noted in The New York Times at the height of her understimulating book tour. “The only thing the tour is missing is the central element of a campaign: a raison d’etre, a vision,” Vavreck wrote. Clinton can’t talk about what she would do as the country’s leader without admitting that’s what she’s seeking to do. But will that change once she officially becomes a candidate? Based on the evidence, I wouldn't hold my breath.