Hillary: Kicking Ass, Taking Names, and Making It Look Easy

Over the last nine months, Beltway pundits and insiders have cracked jokes about Clinton's standing in the Administration. But this month, HRC is riding high in the polls and dominating the media. Who's laughing now?

A quick opinion piece in the new New York magazine tries to explain how Hillary rose to such heights:

The sudden Clinton clamor in the media strikes the ear as especially cacophonous in light of how quiet she has been for most of her nine months in her new job. And the sound of silence out of State, in turn, has given rise to a clear conventional wisdom about Hillary's role in Obamaville, which is part of what she was reacting to in her interviews with NBC and ABC this week. The CW, put succinctly, is that Hillary is a virtual nonentity in the administration: that in terms of political status, she ranks in the second tier, and that when it comes to policy sway, she has been out-barked and out-bitten by the pack of alpha dogs that the president has installed around her.

It's easy enough to understand this interpretation of Clinton's standing. After her soap-operatic campaign, the absence of drama around HRC creates cognitive dissonance for the punditocracy and other Beltway tea-leaf readers. Yet the truth is that the conventional wisdom is wrong, I think, in both its particulars and its overall verdict. And not just wrong but illustrative of a set of misapprehensions about how the woman thinks and operates-or, at least, how she's learned to do so, especially with respect to the navigation of new terrain. Indeed, one need only look back as far as her time in the Senate to understand how she now sees and plays the game, and why, on everything from the battle over U.S. policy in Afghanistan to the shaping of her future, she's perfectly likely to win.

Opining that Clinton succeeded in the Senate by "being wonky and learning the ropes", writer John Heilemann sets up the argument that this was all part of Clinton's master plan:

To the outside world, all this laying low has made Clinton look like less of a player. But the reality is almost exactly the opposite. From the outset, Hillary recognized that she could only exercise influence inside the administration if she were trusted by Obama and the people close to him. And although the president himself and Emanuel never had much doubt that she could be a team player, many others in the Obamasphere were supremely skeptical. But no longer. "In terms of loyalty, discretion, and collegiality," says a senior White House official, "she's been everything we could have asked or hoped for."

The unfolding debate over Afghanistan is maybe the most conspicuous example of Hillary's adroitness at working the inside game. Compared with Joe Biden and General Stanley McChrystal, her position has been opaque. But now comes word that Clinton and Gates are lining up on the same side in favor of a middle course in the region-not the full-blown troop surge that the general advocates nor the bare-bones approach that the V.P. favors. By all accounts, the likeliest outcome is that Obama will wind up pursuing the Gates-Clinton split-the-difference. And while no one will ever call it the Hillary doctrine, it will be the kind of quiet win that leads to greater internal power for her in the future.

Playing the inside game works to Clinton's advantage in other ways as well. It's no coincidence, I'd argue, that her popularity has sharply risen in these months when her profile has been lower, when she's been perceived as selflessly working on behalf of her boss. Hillary's greatest political vulnerability has always been the sense among many voters that she is ambition incarnate. That she's forever shimmying up the greasy pole. That everything she does and says is all about her own advancement.

But now Obama has put her in the perfect position to play the good soldier. To say with (almost) a straight face that she's looking forward to retirement, that her White House aspirations are behind her. That all she cares about is doing a good job and serving her new master. And as she does, her approval ratings seem to climb by the day.

By quietly amassing support and power, Clinton established enough a base to start powerfully asserting her opinions and directly challenging her opponents on various subjects. Her comments on the war in Afghanistan show that HRC is about to belt that sacred cow in the mouth:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday the Bush administration never sent enough troops to Afghanistan to defeat the al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In an interview with CNN, Clinton said President George W. Bush and his top advisers were unrealistic about Afghanistan from the invasion in late 2001. She said after skimping on the size of the U.S. force in 2001, the administration then dropped the ball by shifting its focus to Iraq.

Uh-oh, Karl Rove & Co. HRC is back.

And y'all are about to get served.

Poll: Clinton has high job approval [CNN]
Hillary Reborn [New York Magazine]
Hillary Clinton faults Bush on Afghanistan [UPI]