She didn’t promise a political revolution in which the public would rise up in support of her policies. She didn’t argue that the tensions of the past will subside. And she didn’t argue that her victory would cause her political opponents to suddenly become more reasonable.
Instead, Clinton said, the only way change can happen in a polarized political system is with constant, exhausting effort. "There’s no shortcut," she said. "There’s no quick answer."
"A lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards," she went on. "I don’t think there’s anything sexy, exciting, or headline-grabbing about it. I think it is getting up every day, building the relationships, finding whatever sliver of common ground you can occupy, [and] never ever giving up in continuing to reach out even to people who are sworn political partisan adversaries."
Translation: No, the Republicans won’t vanish into thin air because a Democratic president gives an inspiring, West Wing–esque speech. No, a bunch of new voters aren’t going to suddenly appear and transform the electoral math. Yes, most of a president’s efforts to enact change will fail.
But a president needs to keep making those efforts anyway — because every so often, Clinton thinks, the stars will align, and some sort of compromise with people who hate you will be achievable. And in the absence of any magical alternative that would transform the system, that’s the only way change can happen.
"I’ve seen it work. And I’ve been part of seeing it and making it work," Clinton said. "You’ve got to try to push forward as many different issues as you can all at the same time, because you never know what’s going to turn the tide."
Hillary Clinton is very clear that she thinks Republicans want to destroy her
This blunt pragmatism has long been a hallmark of Clinton’s political style. Back during her 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, for instance, Clinton mocked her rival Barack Obama for what she thought was his excessive optimism about how he could transform the political system.
"Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified,'" Clinton said sarcastically in a primary season speech. "The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect." She continued: "Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be."
Indeed, in her interview with Vox she was very clear that she sees politics as extremely difficult work, done alongside people who desperately want to destroy her. GOP leaders in the 1990s, Clinton said, "were trying to destroy" her husband. Congressional Republicans are "a hyperpartisan opposition who has decided their ideology is more important than actually getting results."
Furthermore, she expressed no regret for saying in a debate last year that "the Republicans" were the enemy she was most proud of making. "They say terrible things about me, much worse than anything I’ve ever said about them," she said. "That just seems to be part of the political back and forth now." Attacking your partisan opponents in incredibly vicious ways is just a normal thing now.
But she argues that it is possible to work with one’s enemies
However, the presumptive Democratic nominee argued that (occasionally) working with (some) Republicans was necessary despite all that — because so long as they have power in Congress, how else can anything get done?
"I certainly saw my husband do it," she said, "and he did it with people who were trying to destroy him. Every single day, he’d meet with them at night; they’d hammer out deals; they would negotiate over very difficult things; they’d shut the government down; he’d veto them; they’d come back. You just keep going."
It is possible to find "common ground," Clinton argued, saying that she managed to do so for both the Children’s Health Insurance Program (which she helped win congressional support for establishing in the 1990s) and New START (a nuclear arms reduction treaty she helped win Senate approval for in 2010).
But, she added, it won’t be easy. "You just keep working at it. It takes a lot of effort, but if you’re persistent you can get things done," she said. "It is not flashy."
Clinton’s most dubious claim: She’ll become more popular once she’s in office
Of course, Clinton wouldn’t be a politician without some excessive optimism about how she can personally fix what ails America.
"We have become so divided, and we’ve got to try to get people back listening to each other and trying to roll up our sleeves and solve these problems that we face — and I think we can do that," she said. (We’ll see about that.)
She also argued that her past track record has shown that her popularity tends to plunge during elections but rises afterward.
"When I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating," she said. "And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up."
But, Clinton continued, "I am really confident that I can break through that and I can continue to build an electoral victory in November. And then once I’m doing the job, I think we’ll be back to people viewing me as the person doing the job instead of the person seeking the job."
This seems ... unlikely. Clinton was indeed popular in the Senate and as secretary of state. But in the former office she was representing a very liberal state, and in the latter office she was insulated from day-to-day political combat.
Neither of those circumstances would hold true for the presidency — an institution that has only grown more polarizing in recent years. Bill Clinton was the most polarizing president ever, until he was topped by George W. Bush, who was then topped by Barack Obama. That’s not a promising trendline for Clinton.
Overall, though, Clinton’s straightforwardness about just how difficult it will be to achieve change is a bit of refreshing honesty, compared with politicians who tend to make big promises that they have little chance of actually delivering on. Bitter partisan polarization appears to be a fact of life in our current system. And it’s better that politicians address it forthrightly, rather than pretending it will go away.