Some of the most pointed passages in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir confront the congressional Republican criticism about Benghazi. That’s hardly a surprise, given that the book is so clearly a positioning document for another presidential run in which one major line of GOP attack will be against the former secretary of State’s handling of the assault on that U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
What comes off as much more of a surprise is how Clinton steers almost entirely clear of criticizing individual Republicans from Capitol Hill, while singling out a collection of prominent establishment GOP members for praise. The roster of congressional name checks in “Hard Choices,” in fact, is remarkably bipartisan. She says nice things about her dealings with a dozen Democratic senators or representatives, but almost as many Republicans, during her eight years in the Senate and her subsequent four years at the State Department.
Counting up the mentions in a prominent politician’s book is among a typical Washington striver’s bad habits, and many on the Hill have been doing just that in the week since the book went on sale.
But in this case, the exercise could offer a clue about how Clinton may deal with Republicans if she seeks or wins the White House in two years. She may be content to remain on decent terms with a small cadre of GOP centrists, the sort President Barack Obama has labeled the “common sense caucus,” while disdaining and dismissing her legions of conservative critics without calling them out individually. That was clearly the approach in her 34-page chapter chronicling the attack on Benghazi and its aftermath. She takes responsibility for the deaths of four Americans while defending, in detail, her department’s actions before and after. And, while maintaining that her time as a New York senator gave her “a great deal of respect for the oversight role that Congress is meant to play,” she asserts that any lawmakers who “exploit this tragedy over and over as a political tool minimize the sacrifice of those who served our country.”
The book, which went to press just as the House voted to create its select committee on the attack, makes clear Clinton has no interest in answering any more GOP inquiries on the matter. “Many of these same people are a broken record about unanswered questions. But there is a difference between unanswered questions and unlistened to answers,” she writes. “Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me.”
Her tone is totally different in discussing her former Senate Republican colleagues. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, is hailed for his help in the administration’s efforts to combat Syria’s chemical weapons. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Corker’s predecessor on the Senate panel until his 2010 defeat, gets kudos for his work to win ratification of an arms control treaty with Russia. John McCain of Arizona gets a big thank you for vigorously defending Clinton’s longtime aide, Huma Abedin, against unsubstantiated claims from “several ignorant House members” that Abedin was a secret agent for the Muslim Brotherhood during the revolution in Egypt. Susan Collins of Maine is praised as a fine traveling companion on several congressional delegation trips to international hot spots.
And John Warner of Virginia is described as a particularly valuable sounding board on defense and foreign policy, no more so than when he became a skeptic of the Iraq War in 2006 — two years before he retired — while she ran for president as a senator who voted for the war but subsequently pressed to end it.
The only Republicans called out for brief criticism are Speaker John A. Boehner and Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey. She sees both as having inflamed tensions with China during negotiations to ease the departure of dissident Chen Guangcheng.
But two is still more than the number of congressional Democrats she upbraids: Zero. And she’s got plenty of kind words for many of — starting with Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware senator in her caucus for eight years and now, as vice president, a possible rival for the 2016 Democratic nomination. His “wealth of international experience” from his time chairing Foreign Relations, she gushes, meant that “I always appreciated our frank and confidential conversations."
That Clinton decided her book would not be about settling scores with longtime rivals within the party, or airing their dirty laundry, means she’s not about to leave the pinnacle of her party with a torch tossed over her shoulder. Instead, she is hoping to leave the impression she’s comfortable accepting the behavior of virtually all her fellow Democrats.
She says she was surprised, but not annoyed, to learn that in the closing days of the 2008 campaign, Harry Reid and Obama discussed Clinton becoming secretary of State — but that her Senate majority leader kept the conversation a secret from her for several weeks, until after the newly elected president first offered the job.
Reid says he plans to run for re-election in 2016 and wants to remain floor leader during his next term. If that plan doesn’t pan out, a prime contender to take the top leadership job at the start of the next presidential administration would be Charles E. Schumer, who became New York’s senior senator when Clinton arrived in Congress in 2001. “While many enjoyed pointing out how different Chuck and I were and how competitive we were at times, the truth is that he and I were a great team, and I respect his instincts,” she writes.
The cloying sweetness from all the bipartisan bouquets may come off as unbearable — especially to those who witnessed Clinton’s tenacity and intensity up close during her time as a senator. But sending those vases of flowers to the Hill now means she’s very likely to ask for something in return soon enough.