Her achievements are proof that she has political abilities, though not necessarily the same ones as her husband. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Her achievements are proof that she has political abilities, though not necessarily the same ones as her husband. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

How good a politician is Hillary Clinton?

Philip Klein argued today that her recent struggle to find a good answer to questions about her wealth should remind us that she’s overrated, and not as strong as her husband.

I won’t argue about the Big Dog’s political acumen, but I do think some clarification is required. It's true that compared with her husband, Hillary isn’t as much of a natural (or at least seeming natural) when it comes to talking to the press and public. But that’s only one part of the job of “politician,” even if we’re just sticking to the electioneering side.

Klein sums up Hillary Clinton this way: “Her political career has involved winning a Senate seat in New York over a weak Republican opponent in a year that Al Gore carried the state by 25 points -- and squandering a massive lead against candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic nomination battle.”

Well, sort of. She also managed to win a very valuable open Senate nomination despite not actually being from the state; she built an impressive lead in the 2008 nomination battle, crushing several candidates, only to come up just barely short; and she has now built what appears to be an unprecedented lead -- outside of incumbent presidents and vice-presidents -- for the presidential nomination.

How has she done all that? Whether by instinct, skill, or ability to listen to the right people, she seems to have a knack for finding the center point of the Democratic Party. She also appears to have the ability to win over quite a few relevant Democratic party actors – the politicians, formal party officials and staff, campaign and governing professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups and party-aligned partisan media who have the biggest say in nomination politics. The fact that she didn't achieve that through the kind of public speaking that Bill Clinton is so good at implies that she may be quite good indeed at some of the other aspects of being a politician.

Granted, there is another possible explanation: that she’s just coasting on her husband's reputation. Perhaps (and maybe that explains the impressive 2000 nomination drive by an even more awkward public speaker, Al Gore). It’s not clear what kind of evidence we would look for to determine this – keeping in mind, by the way, that the ability to tie oneself effectively to a popular party politician is itself a valuable political skill. And as I’ve said several times, we don’t yet know the depth of Hillary Clinton’s party support for 2016.

In any case, I’d say that she’s been an extremely successful politician so far. Even if she can’t manage to put together a decent answer to the occasional seemingly easy question from the press.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.