Why the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know

Hillary Clinton

This is not a profile of Hillary Clinton. It is not a review of her career or an assessment of her campaign. You won’t find any shocking revelations on her emails, on Benghazi, on Whitewater, or even on her health care plan.

This is an effort to answer a question I’ve been struggling with since at least 2008: Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail?

I’ve come to call it “the Gap.” There is the Hillary Clinton I watch on the nightly news and that I read described in the press. She is careful, calculated, cautious. Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense.

The Iraq War mars her record, and the private email server and the Goldman Sachs paydays frustrate even her admirers. Polls show most Americans doubt her basic honesty. Pundits write columns with headlines like “Why Is Clinton Disliked?”


Clinton rally, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2016. (Kainaz Amaria/Vox)

And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will. Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes.

Obama administration officials, up to and including the president, badly want to see her win — there is something in the way she acted after the election, in the soldier she became and the colleague she showed herself to be, that has curdled the pride they felt in winning the 2008 primary into something close to guilt.

This is the Gap I set out to understand. While reporting this story, I spoke to dozens of people who have worked with Clinton in every stage of her career, going back to her time in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. Every single one acknowledged its existence. Many were frustrated and confused by it.

So, too, is Clinton herself. We spoke for 40 minutes on a hot day in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it was clearly on her mind as she looks at the daily polls (you can watch video of our full interview here). As you watch this clip, remember this is a real human being — a human being who really believes she’s dedicated her adult life to helping others — trying to understand why most Americans say they don’t like her:

“It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings,” Clinton said. “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.”

Her explanation for the Gap is simple enough. “There’s a lot of behavioral science that if you attack someone endlessly — even if none of what you say is true — the very fact of attacking that person raises doubts and creates a negative perspective,” she says. “As someone Exhibit A on that — since it has been a long time that I’ve been in that position — I get that.”

I don’t buy it. Other politicians find themselves under continuous assault, but their poll numbers strengthen amid campaigns. Barack Obama’s approval rating rose in the year of his reelection. So too did George W. Bush’s. And Bill Clinton’s. All three sustained attacks. All three endured opponents lobbing a mix of true and false accusations. But all three seemed boosted by running for the job — if anything, people preferred watching them campaign to watching them govern.

Hillary Clinton is just the opposite. There is something about her persona that seems uniquely vulnerable to campaigning; something is getting lost in the Gap. So as I interviewed Clinton's staffers, colleagues, friends, and foes, I began every discussion with some form of the same question: What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail?

Hillary Clinton speaking at a campaign rally in front of a crowd in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Clinton rally, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2016. (Kainaz Amaria/Vox)

The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. On the one hand, that makes my job as a reporter easy. There actually is an answer to the question. On the other hand, it makes my job as a writer harder: It isn’t a very satisfying answer to the question, at least not when you first hear it.

Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.

How a listener campaigns

“I love Bill Clinton,” says Tom Harkin, who served as senator from Iowa from 1985 to 2015. “But every time you talk to Bill, you’re just trying to get a word in edgewise. With Hillary, you’re in a meeting with her, and she really listens to you.”

The first few times I heard someone praise Clinton’s listening, I discounted it. After hearing it five, six, seven times, I got annoyed by it. What a gendered compliment: “She listens.” It sounds like a caricature of what we would say about a female politician.

But after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times, I began to take it seriously, ask more questions about it. And as I did, the Gap began to make more sense.

Modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking. So imagine what a campaign feels like if you’re not entirely natural in front of big crowds. Imagine that you are constantly compared to your husband, one of the greatest campaign orators of all time; that you’ve been burned again and again after saying the wrong thing in public; that you’ve been told, for decades, that you come across as calculated and inauthentic on the stump. What would you do?


Clinton rally, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2016. (Kainaz Amaria/Vox)

When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in 2000, she tried to do something very strange: She tried to campaign by listening. It was called her “listening tour,” and the press did not like it. “Mrs. Clinton brings to her public appearances a great deal of poise and seriousness of purpose which, more than anything she actually says, is what the events tend to be about,” reported the New Yorker, in a piece representative of much of the coverage I found from that time. “This was the singular insight of the First Lady’s unprecedented ‘listening tour,’ during which she tried to elevate nodding into a kind of political philosophy.”

The frustration pulses through the piece. What the hell is a listening tour, anyway? Is it just an elaborate distraction so the candidate doesn’t have to talk? Is it just one more way a secretive politician who combines radical views with a crippling fear of controversy can hide her true beliefs?

“Many of your colleagues in the press would call me and say, ‘This whole listening thing is a joke. She’s surrounded by the Secret Service. How will anyone get close to her?’” says Melanne Verveer, who served as chief of staff to Hillary Clinton in the White House. “What they missed was she was actually listening! By the time she finished those listening sessions around New York, she really knew more about New York, about the issues there, about what was on people’s minds.”


Clinton’s “listening tour,” Brooklyn, New York, August 1999. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Clinton began her 2016 campaign with a listening tour, as well, and it is worth considering the possibility that these tours are not simply bullshit. This is, to be honest, a possibility I had not really considered until speaking with past and present Clinton aides who have been forced to take their boss’s process seriously.

Laurie Rubiner, who served as Clinton’s legislative director from 2005 to 2008, recalls being asked to block out two hours on the calendar for “card-table time.” Rubiner had just started in Clinton’s office six weeks before, and she had no idea what card-table time was, but when the boss wants something put on the calendar, you do it.

When the appointed day arrived, Clinton had laid out two card tables alongside two huge suitcases. She opened the suitcases, and they were stuffed with newspaper clippings, position papers, random scraps of paper. Seeing the befuddled look on Rubiner’s face, Clinton asked, “Did anyone tell you what we’re doing here?”

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

Her process works the same way today. Multiple Clinton aides told me that the campaign’s plan to fight opiate addiction, the first and most comprehensive offered by any of the major candidates, was the direct result of Clinton hearing about the issue on her tour. “Her way of dealing with the stories she hears is not just to repeat the story but to do something about the story,” says John Podesta, the chair of Clinton’s campaign.

How Clinton's political strength was reframed as a weakness

Let’s stop and state the obvious: There are gender dynamics at play here.

We ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them. You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.

Talking over listening, perhaps.

“Listening is something women value almost above everything else in relationships,” says Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist who studies differences in how men and women communicate. “The biggest complaint women make in relationships is, ‘He doesn’t listen to me.’”

Tannen’s research suggests a reason for the difference: Women, she’s found, emphasize the “rapport dimension” of communication — did a particular conversation bring us closer together or further apart? Men, by contrast, emphasize the “status dimension” — did a conversation raise my status compared to yours?

Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.

Given where both candidates began, there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders proved the more effective talker. His speeches attracted larger audiences, his debate performances led to big gains in the polls, his sound bites went more viral on Facebook.


Sanders rally, Chico, California, June 2016. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Yet Clinton proved the more effective listener — and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder. On the eve of the California primary, 208 members of Congress had endorsed Clinton, and only eight had endorsed Sanders. “This was a lot of relationships,” says Verveer. “She’s been in public life for 30 years. Over those 30 years, she has met a lot of those people, stayed in touch with them, treated them decently, campaigned for them. You can’t do this overnight.”

One way of reading the Democratic primary is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case — the first time at the presidential level — the female leadership style won.


New York primary, Brooklyn, New York, June 2016. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But that wasn’t how the primary was understood. Clinton’s endorsements left her excoriated as a tool of the establishment while Sanders's speeches left people marveling at his political skills. Thus was her core political strength reframed as a weakness.

I want to be very clear here. I’m not saying that anyone who opposed Clinton was sexist. Nor am I saying Clinton should have won. What I’m saying is that presidential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently — and in ways that are pretty deep, that’s what we expect out of our presidential candidates. Campaigns built on charismatic oration feel legitimate in a way that campaigns built on deep relationships do not.

But here’s the thing about the particular skills Clinton used to capture the Democratic nomination: They are very, very relevant to the work of governing. And they are particularly relevant to the way Clinton governs.

Why people always say Hillary Clinton is “so different in person”

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.”

Part of Kamarck’s argument is that presidential primaries used to be decided in the proverbial smoke-filled room — a room filled with political elites who knew the candidates personally, who had worked with them professionally, who had some sense of how they governed. It tested “the ability of one politician to form a coalition of equals in power.”

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination by forming a coalition. And part of how she forms coalitions is by listening to her potential partners — both to figure out what they need and to build her relationships with them. This is not a skill all politicians possess.


Clinton rally, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2016. (Kainaz Amaria/Vox)

As I began to press the people I talked to about why they brought up Clinton’s listening skills, a torrent of complaints about other politicians emerged. “The reason so many people comment on this is most of us have experienced working with people who are awful listeners,” says Sara Rosenbaum, who worked with Clinton on the 1994 health reform bill and is now at George Washington University. “Because they don’t listen, they can’t ask good questions. They can’t absorb the information you’ve given them.”

This, I heard again and again, is where Clinton excels. “In terms of a president’s work, when crises come, you better have good staff around and be able to listen and understand them,” say Mickey Kantor, who chaired Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign but has known Hillary Clinton since the 1970s. “Not just hear the words people are saying but really hear what the implications are. That’s where she’s good. In fact, she’s better than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

But Clinton doesn’t just listen to learn — she listens to flatter, to win allies. “If you are going to suck up to people who write memos, reading their memos is the best way to do it,” says one official who has worked with her, who admits to being pleased that Clinton had absorbed his work. A staffer from her time at the State Department recalled her habit of inviting career foreign service officers to meetings and then referencing something they’d written deep in an old, obscure report. “It made their year,” he says.

There was a small moment in our interview that showed off this skill. I had asked Hillary Clinton about extreme poverty and welfare reform, and whether in our rush to help the working poor we had forgotten the nonworking poor. In her answer, she offhandedly, but knowledgeably, referenced Congressman Jim Clyburn’s 10-20-30 idea, which would force agencies to spend 10 percent of their appropriated funds in communities where 20 percent of the population has lived in poverty for more than 30 years.

Most people listening to the interview probably wouldn’t really linger on the paragraph, but you can bet Clyburn will notice Clinton’s comment, and it will mean something to him.

People in Washington do not expect those in power to be particularly attentive to their work or curious about their past, and Clinton uses this to her advantage. “You hear people say, ‘She’s so different in person,’” says Podesta. “That’s what they’re finding so appealing. When people don’t know her well and they encounter her, people are taken with the fact that she is interested in them.”

How Hillary Clinton wins over liberal policy wonks

It’s fair to ask what all this amounts to. It’s nice for staff to feel loved, but politics, as Clinton never tires of reminding audiences, is about getting real things done for real people.

Bob Greenstein is the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He has devoted his life to understanding and improving policy that affects the poor. He is among the people in Washington whom I respect most. And when I asked him about Clinton, about what she’s actually gotten done, he gets very specific. “I can give you three personal examples,” he says immediately. The stories he told me are wonky, to say the least. I include all three here because I think the way they echo one another is important.

The first came in 1988, when Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas. The 1986 federal tax reform law created a windfall for state governments, and Greenstein’s organization wanted to see it used to exempt families below the poverty line from paying state income taxes. Arkansas was a particularly bad offender on this front — it began collecting income tax at about half the poverty line.

Greenstein’s group wrote a report. The plan was to release it at a press conference and hope for the best. Then an old friend suggested Greenstein call Hillary Clinton. So he did. He called her at her law firm, and she called him right back and asked for a copy of the report. She read it overnight and called him back again, asking how he intended to release the report. His plan for a press conference didn’t impress her much.

“I don’t think you’ll get the attention you’re seeking,” Greenstein remembers her saying. “Let me get back to you.” Two days later, she called him back again. Her husband would convene a special session of the state tax commission; Greenstein would be invited to unveil his report there, in front of the press corps, after being introduced by the governor. His recommendations passed.

Example two. Bill Clinton was four weeks into his presidency. He had promised that if you worked full time, you wouldn’t have to raise your kids in poverty. His first budget tried to make good on that promise with a boost in the earned income tax credit. But when Greenstein’s team ran the numbers, the policy didn’t fulfill the promise.

Again, Greenstein wrote a paper. Again, he sent it to Hillary Clinton. He remembers sending it at 2 pm. At 9 am the next morning, he was summoned to the White House. They changed the policy.


First lady Hillary Clinton, White House, Washington, DC, August 1999. (Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images)

Example three. It’s now 1999, and Greenstein is trying to get administrative changes made to welfare reform to ensure families don’t lose their food stamps when they return to work. He keeps hitting dead ends. Then he asks for a meeting with Clinton. She peppers him with questions for 30 minutes and then says he’s right, she agrees. The changes get made.

In each case, Clinton is contacted by somebody who’s smart and credible but doesn’t have a ton of political clout. In each case, the message is that the policy her husband is either administering or making is flawed in some very technical way. And rather than ignore that message, or become defensive about it, she listens. She dives into the details — details that would numb many professional policy staffers, to say nothing of most politicians.

Two things spring from this pattern. The first is change. Clinton is good at getting things done. The second is relationships. People who are on the other side of Clinton’s focus — who know how rare it is for a major politician to take a deep interest in their wonkish obsessions — find themselves unusually enamored of Clinton.

“When you’re with her,” says Tom Nides, who served as Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, “you know she is actually listening to you in a way most people in her place don’t need to do. That’s why she has that level of loyalty in the people who have been around her a long time.”

The danger of leading by listening

There is a downside to listening to everyone, to seeking rapport, to being inclusive, to obsessing over common ground. Clinton’s effort to find broad consensus can turn her speeches and policies into mush. Her interest in hearing diverse voices can end with her chasing down the leads of cranks and hacks. Her belief that the highest good in politics is getting something — at times, anything — done means she takes few lonely stands and occasionally cuts deals many of her supporters regret.

Clinton spent much of the primary defending herself against criticisms of deals her husband made and she supported — welfare reform and the crime bill, specifically. Her great failure, the 1994 health reform effort, unwound in part because she created a sprawling, unruly process in which hundreds of experts came together to write a bill no one understood and no one could explain.


Health care reform press conference, Los Angeles, California, January 1994. (Laura Luongo/Liaison)

Clinton’s great mistake, her vote for the Iraq War, is an object lesson in the dangers of listening to the wrong people. “If left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons,” she said, having listened to the wrong intelligence assessments.

She justified her vote by saying she had listened to President Bush and she would trust him — “I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a UN resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible” — and there is probably no sentence she has uttered that she regrets so bitterly.

If there has been any major revelation from Clinton’s email releases, it’s just how many people she’s hearing from, how many people she’s listening to. Her staff privately complains about the missives she received from longtime courtier Sidney Blumenthal passing along tips about the internal workings of Libya; she often demanded follow-ups, and though much of the information proved false or irrelevant, time and effort was wasted tracking it down. Later, it turned out Blumenthal had business interests in Libya, which led to more negative coverage for Clinton.

This is, in general, one of the frustrations you hear from Clintonites: Her network is massive, and particularly when her poll numbers flag, or she feels under attack, she reaches out into that vast, strange ecosystem. The stories of Clinton receiving a midnight email from an old friend and throwing her campaign into chaos are legion, and it was all the worse because she often wouldn’t admit that’s what was happening, and so her staff ended up arguing against a ghost.

In an exhaustive review of private communications from her 2008 campaign, Joshua Green wrote that “her advisers couldn’t execute strategy; they routinely attacked and undermined each other, and Clinton never forced a resolution.” Under duress, Clinton’s process broke down, and her management proved cumbersome, ineffective, and conducive to staff infighting.

“What is clear from the internal documents is that Clinton’s loss derived not from any specific decision she made but rather from the preponderance of the many she did not make,” Green concluded. “Her hesitancy and habit of avoiding hard choices exacted a price that eventually sank her chances at the presidency.”


Obama picks Clinton as secretary of state, Chicago, Illinois, December 2008. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Clinton’s daily speeches reflect the more prosaic trade-offs of inclusivity. The laundry lists she often gets criticized for are no accident; they’re the product of a process in which many groups and many advisers are consulted, and Clinton wants to make sure they see the contribution in final product.

There is political savvy in this; after Clinton finishes an address, her campaign circulates emails carrying praise from a dizzying array of interest groups, experts, and stakeholders who heard the line they wanted to hear most. But those searching for a larger, sharper vision are often left disappointed; consensus is the enemy of inspiration.

“The policies she’s running on are a policy wonk’s delight,” says Robert Reich, who served as secretary of labor under Bill Clinton and has known Hillary Clinton since college. “But the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. It is hard to say what she stands for because she has not singled out a few very large, very ambitious ideas on which she would like a mandate to govern.”

It is easy to imagine reading an article, in the third year of Clinton’s presidency, that sees this process as the root of her presidency’s failures. She could run a White House weighted down by endless meetings, fractured between too many competing priorities, riven between different advisers constantly fighting for her favor, and paralyzed by a search for common ground that Republicans won’t let her find.

Hillary Clinton vs. the press

Compounding these potential problems is that there’s one group Clinton absolutely can’t stand hearing from: the press. She believes the media offers wall-to-wall coverage of trumped-up non-scandals that ultimately prove hollow. She resents the fact that when the stories finally fall apart, the press just moves on, but the damage lingers in the public’s view of her. And, well, she’s right. Whitewater, Travelgate, Benghazi — there’s no politician who has been at the center of so many scandals that have turned out to be worth so little.


Senate Foreign Relations Committee Benghazi hearings, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC, January 2013. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Clinton’s mistrust of the press, however, has turned toxic: She’s so sure she’ll get a raw deal no matter what she does that she does things she simply shouldn’t. Rather than making her more cautious about avoiding any hint of impropriety, it’s made her more fatalistic. Other ex-officials give paid speeches to big banks, so why shouldn’t she? Other officials use private email accounts sometimes, so why can’t she use hers all the time? Republicans and the media really have treated her unfairly, so why shouldn’t she dodge press conferences and conceal transcripts?

The result is a peculiar blindness around her own behavior. “A democracy relies on the glue of trust,” Clinton told me. “There’s got to be that rock-solid belief that this transaction between us as voters and citizens rests on something deep and sacred. And I don’t know how we get back to that.”

A start might have been refusing Goldman Sachs’s 2013 offer to accept $675,000 for three speeches. Now, instead, Clinton has pocketed the money and refused to release transcripts of the speeches. It’s an action at odds with the charge that she’s an endlessly calculating politician — no politician concerned only with her future electability would have given those speeches.

Clinton’s anger at the press has become a unified field theory for the problems bedeviling American politics. At one point in our conversation, she said she had been trying to understand “the Republican-Democratic divide in Washington” by “looking at writings both by political scientists and sociologists about how America worked well and trying to sort through what did we lose?”

Her answer is that the media abdicated its role as gatekeeper of a civil, substantive discourse. “I do think — and I keep saying this, because I believe it — I think the media environment where people are rewarded for being outrageous, for yelling at each other, for saying things that are untrue without being held accountable for it has contributed to this attitude of divisiveness and separation,” she said.

And watch the way she says it. It comes in response to a question about her favorite books. She really does believe this.

At another point, I asked her why trust in so many major institutions in public life — politicians, the business, the media — had fallen in recent decades. She turned immediately to the media. “I really believe that none of us have done what we should have done in being really straightforward about what we know and what we don’t know,” she said, “in being willing to say, ‘We reported that story last week; it turns out we were wrong.’”

I think Clinton’s understanding of her problems and the political system’s problems are tied together. She sees the loss of public trust in her as caused by the same force that has led to the loss of public trust in everything else: a press corps obsessed with controversy, uninterested in substance, and incapable of or uninterested in policing the boundaries of decency and truthfulness.

As a member of the press corps, I’ll cop to some of that. But Clinton’s explanation here has become a rationalization. She has been so wounded by the reporting around her, by the hunting for wrongdoing or scandal, that she has lost sight of the bar she should be held to and now plays loose with the public’s trust herself.


Clinton campaign event, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 2016. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton will have that drink with Mitch McConnell

If she’s elected president, Hillary Clinton’s toughest audience will not be liberal technocrats, or former staffers, or even the media. She is likely to face a Republican House, and perhaps a Republican Senate, and she will have no leverage with either: Her poll numbers with Republican voters are abysmal.

Clinton laments how polarizing she is, but the fault lies at least partly with her. Asked at a Democratic debate to name the enemies she’s most proud of making, she replied, “The Republicans.” For all her talk of finding common ground, of reaching out, of respecting each other, she stood up, on national television, and said she’s proud of the enmity she inspires in roughly half the country.

I asked her if she regretted that statement, whether she thinks she’s feeding the negativity, becoming part of the problem. “Not very much,” she said. “I mean, you can go back and look at how I’ve worked with Republicans, and I think I have a very strong base of relationships with them and evidence of that. But, you know, they say terrible things about me, much worse than anything I’ve ever said about them. That just seems to be part of the political back and forth now — to appeal to your base, to appeal to the ideologues who support you. 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.”

It’s a weird answer. Within the space of a couple of sentences, Clinton refuses to apologize for calling Republicans her enemy, says she works well with them, blames them for saying worse about her, laments that this is how politics works now, and then says, “We’ve got to try to get people back to listening to each other.”

I spent a lot of time puzzling over her response and asking people about it, and I’ve come to think that the right interpretation is the one that is also hardest to credit: She believes what she said. She is a master compartmentalizer, and she believes she can cleave who she is on the campaign trail, and who she is in the minds of Republican voters and even some Republican politicians, from who she’ll be as president. And she’ll do it by reaching out constantly, endlessly, relentlessly, and cheerfully.

Stylistically, this sets her a bit apart from Barack Obama. He entered office believing he could find common ground by being open to compromise and by proposing policies that included Republican ideas, but he does not like the game of politics. He doesn’t want to play golf with congressional adversaries or knock back drinks with people he thinks treat him unfairly. He’ll work with legislators he doesn’t agree with, but he presses his points, he shows his frustrations.

Republicans often complain of leaving meetings with Obama after being lectured about their own political self-interest. He seems more interested in hearing himself talk than in listening to what they want, they complain.

There is a joke Obama told at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that really brought the house down. “Some folks,” he said, “still don't think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?' they ask. Really? Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?” He smiled. The crowd roared.

The joke was funny because it was true, and everybody knew it. The last thing Barack Obama wants to do after a long day of running the country is have a drink with Mitch McConnell.

This is where Clinton and Obama differ. One official who has worked with them both says, “The Republicans I know think she’s just as horribly liberal as Obama but she’ll be better at compromising and working with others.”

Hillary Clinton will never stop having drinks with Mitch McConnell. You don’t have to listen too hard to this answer to hear the gentle critique of Obama laced through it:

“A lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards,” she says. “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, never, ever giving up in continuing to reach out even to people who are sworn political partisan adversaries.”

She speaks with fondness of the ’90s, when, “after criticizing Bill all day, Newt Gingrich would come over to the White House at 9 o’clock and they'd negotiate for a couple of hours.”

This theory would be easy to dismiss except for the fact that Clinton, well, did it. When she entered the Senate, she was two years removed from the impeachment of her husband, and she wasn’t facing a warm welcome.

“I’ll tell you one thing: When this Hillary gets to the Senate, if she does — maybe lightning will strike and she won’t — she will be one of 100, and we won’t let her forget it,” said then-Sen. Trent Lott, who was majority leader during the impeachment trial. A few years later, they were teaming up on hurricane relief. “This is a weird place,” Lott told the New York Times.

It wasn’t just Lott. In 2006, the Times tallied up Clinton’s unusual alliances:

“With Representative Tom DeLay it was foster children. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, jumped in with her on a health care initiative, and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was a partner on legislation concerning computerized medical records. The list goes on: Senator Robert Bennett on flag-burning; Senator Rick Santorum on children's exposure to graphic images; Senator John Sununu on S.U.V. taillights; Senator Mike DeWine on asthma.”

This wasn’t an accident, and it definitely wasn’t an inevitability. “When she hired me, she said, ‘There is nobody I won’t work with,’” recalls a former Clinton staffer. “I didn’t believe it. So many of the people in the Senate had voted to impeach her husband. But it was true. There was no one she wouldn’t work with.”

Colleagues say Clinton uses the tension between her and Republicans to her advantage. Former adversaries feel awkward when they first meet her — they expect bad blood, bitter feelings, sniping. Instead, she’s friendly, charming, interested in them. She treats them like an old friend. She — here it is again — listens intently to what they say and tries to find common ground.

To go back to Tannen’s theory of rapport communication versus status communication, Clinton takes interactions that past foes expect to be the continuation of a bitter, long-running status conflict and turns them into an opportunity to build rapport. It is, according to those who have witnessed it, incredibly disarming.

“She was wonderful at working with Republicans in the Senate,” says Harkin. “I never heard any Republican senators demean her during that time. She’d come to your office, sit down, talk, have coffee. She could have come in as a prima donna. She never did.”

On a human level, there is something profoundly odd about Clinton’s chumminess with former adversaries. If someone spent years defaming me, trying to destroy my career, trying to destroy the careers of the people I love, I would probably have a bit of trouble befriending them. Most people cannot compartmentalize like this. It’s probably not healthy to compartmentalize like this. But Clinton does it.

Does this mean a Clinton presidency would be some idyll free of partisan conflict? Of course not. When Clinton was the junior senator from New York, Republicans knew they weren’t getting that seat back anytime soon; working with Clinton cost them relatively little (though not nothing — everyone knew Clinton might someday run for president, and a record of bipartisanship would help her).

If Clinton occupies the White House, Republicans will spend every waking moment working to recapture it — and that will mean jacking up Clinton’s negatives, reminding voters she’s a polarizing symbol of America’s toxic politics, denying her major bipartisan victories.

But Clinton will try, and there may even be moments when she succeeds. No one will ever accuse her of not having Mitch McConnell over for enough drinks. He may even like having a drink with her. He’ll probably find she’s a pretty good listener.


Clinton after press interviews, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2016. (Kainaz Amaria/Vox)