In the Arena

Wonk V. Pol

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Josh Marshall makes a very good point about the conflict between Hillary Clinton’s inner policy wonk and her outer slick-pol. She’s much better at the former than the latter–and you have to wonder about the impact that the 1994 health care debacle has had on her. It has certainly reinforced her natural tendency toward (public) caution. In my own policy conversations with her over twenty years and–more important–in talking to military experts who have briefed her over the past five, the impression is of someone hungry for information, uncynical, passionate, excellent at pinpointing the tough questions and quite creative. She seems the opposite as a politician.

It may be that she simply doesn’t have the political talents to be President. Or it may have just been a bad night. But in most of the campaigns I’ve covered, the winner was the candidate best able to grow past perceived personal deficits. Clinton may win the nomination without growing, but she’s going to have trouble when the rest of the country tunes in. Clearly, she’s going to have to be more direct, less clever and, perhaps, passionate when she answers questions. She’s going to have to trust her inner wonk more.

The debate last night was the beginning of the real campaign for the Democrats. We’ve had a year where candidates focused mostly on raising money and fools like me tried to entice voters into reading about a race that seemed about as imminent as the Rapture. Now we have a manageable, rational two months for Iowa and New Hampshire voters to make up their minds. As the psychiatrist said at the end of Portnoy’s Complaint: Now, perhaps, we may begin.

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