There was a moment in Bill Clinton’s winding, loving, and occasionally weird convention speech about his wife that encapsulated how Hillary Clinton’s admirers see her, and why they think so much of the criticism she gets is unfair.
"Speeches like this are fun," said the former president, who clearly finds giving long, nationally televised speeches to be fun. "Actually doing the work is hard."
That’s the view Hillary Clinton’s fans have of her. Hell, it’s the view Hillary Clinton has of herself. She knows she doesn’t give great speeches. "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama," she’s said. But then, she doesn't think giving great speeches is the real work of politics, even though the media and sometimes the voters mistake it for the real work of politics.
That’s what her husband means when he dismisses speeches as "fun." He gives great speeches. But he’s also been president. And he knows the difference.
What Hillary Clinton thinks makes a great president
When I sat down with Clinton in Raleigh, North Carolina, and asked what makes a good president, she turned to this immediately. "A lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards," she said. "I don’t think there’s anything sexy, exciting, or headline-grabbing about it." (Read the full transcript of our interview for much more on this point.)
There are a few qualities that come up whenever you talk to people who’ve worked with Clinton. Her ability to listen is one, and I wrote about that at length here. But another is her capacity for hard work. Like the praise of her listening skills, it can seem faint and gendered — isn’t it the old cliché that the man gets called brilliant while the woman is extolled as a hard worker? But it comes up enough that’s it’s worth taking seriously.
"One of her greatest qualities is working hard," said Mickey Kantor, who chaired Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign but has known Hillary Clinton since the 1970s. "You might say that’s not such a great quality. But she works incessantly, and you cannot overestimate the importance of that in a president. Anyone who says anyone can do that work, that’s not true. We’ve seen presidents who don’t work as hard, who can’t do that, and they’re not as successful."
"There was just never a single instance when she said no to something," said Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy adviser to President Obama. "There was never a time she couldn’t take a trip, get to a meeting, be at a meeting. This is somebody who is never going to have a reason to not do something. It’s a single-mindedness you can’t help but notice."
Hillary’s admirers think she doesn’t get credit for her relentlessness, that she gets overshadowed by politicians who can give a better speech but don’t know how to get anything done, that she gets dinged by a press corps that loves to talk about optics but isn’t particularly interested in how policy gets made.
Some of this is fair; some of it isn’t. But the reason it’s important is that relentlessness is core to Clinton’s theory of change. If you want to know her plan for being a good president, it’s actually pretty simple: Read everything, learn everything, work with everybody, and never stop trying to push the ball forward. That may sound obvious, but it’s actually a sharp change from recent presidents and current candidates whose theory of change relied on the power of oratory to mobilize citizens to demand new policies.
Of late, that strategy hasn’t worked particularly well, and some scholars have turned rather sharply against it. In her book Why Presidents Fail, Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck argues that "successful presidential leadership occurs when the president is able to put together and balance three sets of skills: policy, communication, and implementation."
The problem, Kamarck says, is that campaigns are built to test only one of those skills. "The obsession with communication — presidential talking and messaging — is a dangerous mirage of the media age, a delusion that inevitably comes crashing down in the face of government failure."
This was basically the point of Bill Clinton’s speech: Communication, he argued, is overrated. It’s a relentless focus on making and implementing policy that improves lives. And say what you will about Hillary Clinton, but she has more than demonstrated that.
You know who loves giving fun speeches? Donald Trump.
This was the meta-narrative of Bill Clinton’s speech: He managed to sugarcoat a numbing recitation of how hard Hillary Clinton has worked, how many policies she’s learned and changed, with just enough love story to keep people listening. By using their life together to create chronology, to mark time, he was showing how deep her work has gone, how consistent it’s been, how committed she is.
And he was drawing, quietly, a contrast with Trump. There is no similar narrative for Donald Trump. He loves giving the fun speeches and has little interest in actually doing the hard work. He’s been running for president for more than a year now, and he’s been thinking running for president for much longer than that.
But he shows no serious knowledge of policy, he’s not working hard with expert advisers, he’s not demonstrating a deepening sense of the job. Even his interest in showmanship degrades when he has to cede the floor to others — his convention was a poorly planned, poorly managed mess.
There are candidates against whom Clinton’s appetite for the work of governance, and tedium of change, wouldn’t mark her as special. Mitt Romney, for instance, knew how to grind. Donald Trump does not.
The argument Clinton and her allies are making is that change is hard work, and if you believe the country needs change, then you need a president willing to put in the work for it. In a normal election, that might not actually differentiate the two candidates. In this one, it does.