"This is the number three man in al-Qaeda," moderator Tim Russert told Hillary Clinton at last night's presidential debate. "We know there's a bomb about to go off ... Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?"
Not as a matter of policy, Senator Clinton replied.
But the person who laid out that scenario, Russert explained, was none other than President Bill Clinton.
She countered with the seven most important words she has ever spoken as a presidential candidate: "Well, he's not standing here right now."
The audience burst into applause.
Smart and Smarter
The idea that Hillary Clinton would make a better president than her husband is not new, and in fact her husband has suggested as much himself. "I think she wouldn't make as many mistakes," the former president said in a 2005 interview. "She is far more experienced now in all the relevant ways than I was when I took office."
Both have law degrees from Yale, but outside of that they boast remarkably different resumés.
Bill Clinton had never served in Congress prior to his election as president, and had no significant foreign policy experience. Hillary Clinton is a second-term U.S. senator who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Bill Clinton had never worked in the nonprofit sector. Hillary Clinton was staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund, served on the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation, and co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Bill Clinton's specialty has always been coalition-building. Hillary Clinton's specialty has always been issue advocacy.
This distinction carried over when Bill Clinton entered politics in earnest, and Hillary Clinton settled into the familiar First Lady role. While Bill Clinton focused on political coalition-building, Hillary Clinton was free to study and advocate for specific policy initiatives. Her specialty was, and has always been, advocacy--not politics. This shows in debates and candidate forums, where her delivery is at times noticeably colder and stiffer than that of her husband. She seems slightly out of her element when giving political speeches, a problem that her husband--a political animal, seemingly since birth--never had. But this should come as no surprise. As their life histories suggest, they are two very different people with very different skill sets.
The Maverick Frontrunner
What may make Hillary Clinton a better president than her husband could ultimately boil down to a single personality difference: Beyond the point of minimum political necessity, Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to care what other people think of her. She does not seem to share her husband's need to be liked. This allows her to be principled and contrarian in a way that her husband generally was not. Her career as First Lady is in many ways itself testament to this personality trait, and a specific exchange from last night's debate highlights how this up-yours attitude might make her a better civil libertarian.
The question put forth by Russert: Would you support a national ban on smoking in public places? Every candidate, with the exception of Clinton and Obama, said yes. Clinton and Obama argued that these decisions are generally better made at the local level. And while Obama worded his response in the form of a threat--that if local governments do not ban smoking in public places, the federal government will--Clinton laid out a position that was rhetorically similar but, from a policy perspective, slightly different. "Not at this point," she said. "I think we're making progress at the local level." Clinton was the only candidate at the debate who seemed comfortable leaving public smoking bans as a local decision.
It is also worth acknowledging that Hillary Clinton may have a better civil liberties platform than her husband because, in many ways, the country has made substantial moral progress on many issues during the Bush years. In 1993, Clinton encountered fierce public resistance to changing the ban on lesbians and gay men in the military. In 2009, Hillary Clinton--who has promised to repeal the ban--would encounter no such resistance. In 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and the idea of civil unions was not even on the table. In 2009, Clinton would be in alignment with the majority of Americans if she were to grant some federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. During the first Clinton years, issues like torture, indefinite detention, and warrantless wiretapping were not prominent in our national Congress. In 2009, thanks to Bush and the clumsiness of certain post-9/11 policies, they will be.
If Hillary Clinton becomes our 44th president next November, 16 years will have passed since her husband became our 42nd. Senator Clinton is a new candidate with a new agenda who would be taking office in a new world. In that context, it does not seem at all unrealistic to hope that she will not repeat her husband's old mistakes.