By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Writers Group
Judging by her weekend appearance in Iowa, it looks as if Hillary Clinton is indeed running for president. Now she has to answer one simple question: Why?
"It is true, I am thinking about it," she said Sunday at the final Harkin Steak Fry, an annual cholesterol-boosting fund-raiser that retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin has hosted for the past 37 years. Given the context, this was pretty close to an announcement of the Clinton 2016 campaign.
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She was in Iowa, whose first-in-the-nation caucuses kick off the presidential primary season. She was accompanied by her husband Bill, who did his best to play the supporting role of a candidate's spouse, although second fiddle is an instrument he has not quite mastered. She greeted the crowd by announcing, "Hello Iowa, I'm baaaaaack," stretching the word for emphasis.
The last time she barnstormed through Iowa, it did not go well. The 2008 caucuses were supposed to ratify her status as the Democratic front-runner and show her challengers the futility of their puny efforts. Instead, she finished third behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. The Clinton machine lost the air of inevitability that had been its greatest asset -- and turned out to lack a compelling message that could compete with Obama's promise of hope and change.
Now Clinton begins another campaign — perhaps — in which she is seen as the inevitable winner. She has said she will make a firm decision "probably after the first of the year." But if she has reached the point of dropping broad hints, she needs to begin telling the nation how and why she proposes to lead.
The election of the first woman as president would be a great milestone, but a glance at the headlines — economic and social dislocation at home, terrorism and war abroad — suggests that voters will not likely be in the mood for symbolic gestures. To win the nomination, let alone the general election, Clinton will have to lay out her vision of the way forward.
Her memoir of the years she spent as secretary of state, Hard Choices, offers little guidance. My view is that Clinton did an excellent job as America's chief diplomat, but if she has an overarching philosophy of foreign relations, for some reason she left it out of the book. We know that President Obama believes in multilateralism and the sparing use of U.S. military force. We know that some critics believe we should be more interventionist and others believe we should be more isolationist. Hard Choices doesn't really tell us which way Clinton leans, though her record suggests a slight nod toward the hawkish side.
In the book, Clinton rejects the idea of choosing between the "hard power" of military might and the "soft power" of diplomacy, sanctions and foreign aid. Instead, she advocates "smart power," which seems to mean "all of the above." When I hear officials talking about "smart" this or "smart" that, I hear a buzzword that is often meant to obscure policy choices rather than illuminate them.
Clinton's message on domestic affairs is also unclear. At the Iowa event, she sounded what is sure to be a major theme for both Democrats and Republicans in the coming campaign: the need to ease the plight of the beleaguered middle class.
"Today, you know so well, American families are working harder than ever, but maintaining a middle-class life feels like pushing a boulder uphill every single day," she said, adding that "we can build a growing economy of shared prosperity."
If this indicates she is beginning to formulate a populist appeal, she will find that territory already staked out by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- a non-candidate who nevertheless had sign-carrying supporters in the Iowa crowd. Warren's blistering critique of structural economic inequality is popular with liberal Democrats, some of whom see Clinton as too cozy with Wall Street.
When Warren is asked about her intentions, her standard formulation is "I am not running for president," using the present tense — which doesn't definitively rule anything out. It seems likely, in any event, that someone will challenge Clinton from the left.
After Clinton's brief speech, her husband tried his best not to steal the show. Bill Clinton tossed out lines that can only be called Clintonesque — "We have got to pull this country together to push this country forward" — and implored Democrats and Republicans to find ways to work together.
Centrist pragmatism as a campaign theme? In American politics today, the middle is a dangerous place to be.