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The lesson of Hillary’s secret speeches is she’s exactly who we already knew she was

“You need both a public and a private position,” Hillary Clinton apparently told the National Multi-Family Housing Council in private remarks in 2013.

That’s a potentially embarrassing thing for a politician to say. So much so, in fact, that even Clinton’s team thought so. That’s why Tony Carrk, one of the leaders of her campaign’s research department, flagged it in an email to John Podesta and other senior leaders on the campaign. The bad news for them is the email itself got hacked, so now instead of the campaign being internally well-informed about what potentially embarrassing things Clinton said in the past now all of those things are out in public for everyone to read.

Facing pressure from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign to release the text of the various closed-press paid speeches she’d given between stepping down as Secretary of State and formally beginning her 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton’s team conducted an internal audit of what excerpts from the speeches they thought would make good hits for hostile opposition researchers.

There is obviously a profound irony in a politician getting in trouble because her private position in favor of politicians taking private positions is now out in public. It’s a bad look. And yet it’s one that contains considerable merit — and also one that it’s in no way genuinely surprising to learn that Clinton holds. That’s just one except contained in the email but it’s really the story of the entire dump. The secret that is revealed is exactly the thing everyone already most clearly knows about Clinton — she’s a veteran political insider who likes to see all the angles and make her play accordingly, not a reformer who’s going to show up and clean house.

Dealmaking really is easier in private

Obviously in public any politician worth their salt would disavow this view, and equally obviously they would all agree with it in private. Just as in public no journalist is going to say politicians should keep things secret from the press or lie about their views while, in private, I think it’s hard to disagree with the point Clinton is making. Reference the movie Lincoln’s heroic portrayal of unsavory dealmaking she says that it’s hard to get things done when “everybody’s watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals” because when it’s all out in public view “people get a little nervous, to say the least.”

The saga of the Lincoln administration and the constitutional amendment to end slavery is certainly one of the better ways to enoble the art of the backroom deal but you don’t need to look that far afield.

December 2015, for example, saw an unusual spurt of legislative activity in a gridlocked era with both a major overhaul of federal K-12 education policy and a massive budget agreement passing with bipartisan majorities.

The key to both pieces of legislation was to be worked on quietly out of public view. And in the case of the budget deal, members of congress tell me that absolute secrecy — not just from the public but from the not-involved members themselves — was critical to success. The problem is that a public debate would necessarily have become an exercise in position-taking, which is antithetical to compromise. In private, members can admit that they care about some things more than others and find a way to reach an accommodation.

Beware the seduction of secrecy

At the same time, the secret Clinton speeches are in many ways a cautionary tale about the excessive allure of secret knowledge.

People I know who’ve been critical of Clinton for years specifically on the grounds that they view her as excessively close to the financial industry and too likely to rely on industry insiders to staff her administration have found plenty of ammunition for that view in these speeches.

  • She told a Goldman Sachs summit that in the political system “there is such a bias against people who have led successful and/or complicated lives,” seeming to express the view that there isn’t enough of a revolving door between industry and Washington.
  • She bragged at an early Goldman event that she “represented” many Wall Street types as a senator and had “great relations” with banks.
  • At this same event she also said “the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry” and she wants to rely on their expertise in designing a regulatory system.
  • She told another finance group that as a senator she “worked with so many talented principled people who made their living in finance.”

At the same time, it’s impossible to emphasize enough that the people complaining most loudly about these remarks are the exact same people who already had these exact same doubts based on publicly available information about Clinton.

By contrast, we also learn that she told a Brazilian bank in 2013 that “my dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” This will, naturally, confirm the fears of the paranoid anti-immigration right but it will do so precisely because it’s what they already think Clinton believes — Donald Trump’s been running around saying Clinton favors open borders for months. The more skeptical among us will note that nothing in her extensive record in office in any way supports the idea that she is working to create a hemispheric common market.

The public Hillary is the real one

I will confess that, like Clinton, I once spoke off the record at a National Multi-Family Housing Council event, though unlike her I wasn’t paid for my trouble. I think it’s fair to say that in doing so I probably offered a version of my views that I thought would appeal to the sensibilities of private apartment building developers, while I’ve pitched the same ideas somewhat differently when speaking to groups of affordable housing activists or a trade association of city planners.

But if you want to know what I “really” think about all this, don’t go hunting around for a secret transcript of my remarks — buy my book.

The secretness of private remarks and private knowledge makes them inherently tempting. But whether for pundits or politicians, there’s an important sense in which the public statement is the key one. Clinton can say whatever she wants to a private room of Brazilian bankers and it will in no way constrain her scope of action in the future. By contrast, when Clinton makes a public commitment to change the regulatory interpretations surrounding the Volcker Rule she is creating a real problem for herself if she doesn’t do it. Presidents usually make good faith efforts to implement their campaign promises, because politics is fundamentally a public undertaking. When you say you are going to do something, you probably have to try to do it and the more publicly and prominently you make the promise the harder it is to slip out of. Something said in private to Goldman Sachs is, by contrast, cheap talk.

The secrecy Clinton praised to the NMHC is valuable precisely because in politics publicly taken positions override private ones. To get deals done, you need to be able to talk about issues you aren’t being pressed on in public because once you’re in a public debate you are necessarily cutting off your bargaining room.

Clinton and the audacity of realism

Speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama praised Clinton as the most qualified presidential candidate in generations, explicitly drawing contrasts with themselves.

This is, however, no coincidence. At both the 1992 and 2008 conventions, Bill and Obama both proudly claimed the mantle of political outsiders and promised to clean up the mess in Washington. Fundamentally, that’s what voters want to hear. They have little respect for politicians in general and congress in particular, and they want to hear that bringing a new person in will change everything and fix everything.

Clinton, precisely because of her vast experience in government, is completely non-credible as a bringer of drastic change and systemic reform. She is, quite clearly, a creature of the system who is comfortable with it and intends to work within it. That is the “secret” revealed by every hacked email and every leaked speech, and it is also the completely obvious fact of the matter that is readily apparent to anyone who takes an even cursory look at her biography. It’s exactly what her allies are bragging about when they talk about how qualified she is.

Amidst all the other remarkable aspects of the 2016 campaign, this is a thread that tends to get lost but Clinton is asking the American people to do something they almost never do — admit that the American political system fundamentally is what it is, and so you might as well elect someone who’s good at operating it in rather dream of someone who’s going to show up and clean up the mess in Washington. Fundamentally, the only message of the secret speeches is that Clinton is exactly who we thought she was — someone who’s been around a long time, someone who knows a lot of stuff, someone who’s cozy with the established players, and someone who doesn’t really embrace good government pieties.

You can make of this what you will — I personally find it kind of charming but most Americans seem not to — but like it or not it’s worth admitting to yourself that peeling back further layers of the onion and delving into deeper realms of secrecy isn’t going to teach us much of anything new about her.