How Hillary Clinton Can Win the Right Way

If the presumptive nominee wants to be great at being president rather than just to be the president, she's going to need to shake things up.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Hillary Clinton seems poised to win the Democratic nomination, and polls suggest she has an excellent chance of securing the White House in November. For Clinton, it may be less a question of whether she’ll win in November, than of how—and what she’ll do next. I’ve been talking to a diverse set of political insiders, including many who are close to Hillary Clinton, to understand what form a genuinely transformative presidency might take. I’ve distilled those conversations into a faux memo, as I did in 2013 and 2015, to sketch the difference between merely winning, and actually succeeding.

To: Hillary

Subject: Winning Right

Congratulations! You are now the presumptive Democratic nominee. Considering the demographic obstacles piled against Donald J. Trump, you’re this close to the presidency. The nation’s first woman president. Heir to President Obama’s legacy.

It’s not enough. Is your goal to win the presidency or to win and transform the presidency? Are you a caretaker or a change agent? Do you seize power for the love of power or for higher purposes: to modernize the institutions of politics and governance; to restore the public’s faith in Washington; to break the cycle of polarization and solve big problems; to galvanize the youth vote (like Obama) and translate millennials’ passion and power into governmental reforms (unlike Obama)?

Back in 2013, the first memo in this sequence predicted: “The next president of the United States (Democrat or Republican) will be a populist.” It urged you to run a campaign that was radically accessible, honest and authentic, small and nimble, and populist. You didn’t. Trump did. So did Bernie Sanders.

Then in 2015, the second memo chastised you for the email scandal and advised you how to come clean. You didn’t. “The country needs better,” that second memo said. “Stop being the problem. Be the Hillary we once knew.”

You’ve got one last chance. The general election is an opportunity to surprise people by putting forward an agenda that goes beyond liberal checklists and tackles the structural impediments to reform. Listen to Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who told the New York Times on Wednesday that you must focus on how best to connect to a broader electorate that is in what he called a “revolutionary mood.” He was referring to how Sanders has energized supporters.

“You are not going to win this general election by proposing incremental changes,” Murphy said, adding that he hoped you won’t “shy away from proposing some big ideas to try to reorder the country, to the benefit of those that are hurting.”

For what it’s worth, here are 10 such ideas:

Redistricting Reform

The president can’t single-handedy change how House districts are drawn, but presumably you will digitize and modernize Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit—and could influence a grassroots movement forcing state legislatures to draw competitive districts that that incentivize compromise.

Election Reform

Start by making the Democratic nominating process more democratic (goodbye, superdelegates) and then recognize the fact that a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the red-blue duopoly. Make it easier to run for office without pledging allegiance to the Democratic and Republican parties.

Political Money

The Citizens United ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on politics has created a new Gilded Age of politics. The Washington Post found that nearly half the money raised by Super PACs came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives. Reversing the ruling is improbable and would not fix the corrosive system that existed before Citizens United. You could opt for sunlight: Propose the immediate and full disclosure of all fund-raising and spending.

Federal Debt

Thanks to Republicans who won’t raise taxes and Democrats who won’t trim entitlements, even to future beneficiaries, the nation faces a fiscal awakening that will suffocate other priorities. Remember what Obama said about the issue in 2013, before becoming a debt denier. "Those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms—otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations."

Bank Reform

One thing uniting populists on the far right and left is the belief that both Congress and the Obama administration have not done enough to prevent another banking crisis. The largest financial institutions are too big, wield too much power, and are doing too little to restore economic mobility to lower- and middle-class Americans. You could break ‘em up.


This is another issue upon which most Americans agree: The nation’s roads, bridges, airports, and other concrete components of a modern nation are crumbling. You could launch an infrastructure “moon shot,” creating millions of jobs and positioning the nation for another century of dominance.

Executive Authority

You should use the singular power of clemency to bring justice to minorities given draconian drug sentences. So far, Obama has shown relatively little mercy. On the other hand, you should cede to Congress powers that both Obama and President George W. Bush abused for war-making, domestic spying, and immigration.


What better way to signal a determination to restore competency to government than to acknowledge flaws in the law itself and its implementation—and then propose reforms? Who is better suited to evolve the Affordable Care Act than the creator of Hillarycare?


A post-internet citizenry, especially young Americans raised in the open spaces of a digitized world, are demanding transparency from all social institutions. Obama understood this when he promised in 2008 to produce the most transparent administration ever, a pledge he recklessly disregarded. You should actually make transparency the default position of the Clinton administration. Require federal officials to immediately disclose documents and other working material (yes, including emails) except for cases in which it can be independently proven beyond reasonable doubt that disclosure would harm the nation. Related: You should aggressively build upon modest steps Obama has taken to encourage crowdsourcing.

Social Entrepreneurship

In his 1993 inaugural address, your husband said there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America. He was right. He also was ahead of his time, because neither the government nor the people of the 1990s had the ability to find and connect problem-solvers. Today, people can connect themselves—and there are millions of examples in which enterprising Americans, particularly millennials, are using technology and grit to solve problems like crime, hunger, illiteracy, and lack of access to the political system. They’re reforming bits of America at a scale that is relatively small and yet historically significant.

You could be the president who helps seed these initiatives, and lets them flower and evolve into new institutions. Maybe even new forms of government. You could begin the work or adapting or destroying the structural impediments to political reform.

Unless, of course, this is just about winning.