THE BLOG

Is Hillary Ready?

02/18/2015 05:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Apparently not.

According to a February 8, 2015, New York Times article by Amy Chozick, former Secretary of State and possible Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is now receiving economic policy advice from more than 200 economists and policy experts. While the "Ready for Hillary" movement has taken off around the country and mega-donors plus campaign operatives are being courted, the candidate herself is still trying to work out what her principal domestic policy message will be.

If you have been in the public's eye for nearly 40 years, including service as First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, elected to two terms in the United States Senate, and served more than four years as Secretary of State, do you really need an army of advisers to help you explain why you want to be president?

What was most surprising about this New York Times article is what it omitted. There was no mention of the last time Hillary Clinton undertook a major domestic policy initiative some 22 years ago. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton tasked his wife with spearheading a health care reform task force. Working with Bill Clinton's fellow Rhodes Scholar and senior policy adviser Ira Magaziner, Hillary Clinton presided over a group that included more than 500 staff and health care experts. The result of that effort was a major legislative debacle that helped restore a Republican majority in the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm elections and sounded the death knell of health care reform until 2009.

I had a colleague with whom I had worked closely when I served in government and who participated in the work of the Clinton-Magaziner group as one of the 500. He would call me occasionally to discuss what was going on, and we had a solid understanding that the details of our conversation were private and would not be shared with the media. I listened as he described what he thought were the two or three major flaws in the plan, and in one call, after expressing exasperation at the way the endeavor was proceeding, he said, "Charlie, I have never seen a smarter group of people that had absolutely no idea what they are doing." When the Clinton plan was released, I noticed that his predictions were on the money, and it was not long before others reached the same conclusions and the effort died.

Modern presidential campaigns are complex, cumbersome, multi-billion dollar behemoths. In many respects, running such a campaign has come to resemble running a good-sized American corporation. Yet, most corporations get their acts together at the outset and make sure that they have clear mission, vision, and value statements. These messages then drive everything else that the company does, and they are promulgated throughout the enterprise - including to employees, customers, suppliers, and the media.

Hillary Clinton's mission is to become the 45th president of the United States. Her vision and value statements are by no means clear. A former boss in my first government job told me that he once advised then Vice President George H.W. Bush (who was contemplating a presidential campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan) to lock himself in a room by himself and take with him a legal pad and a pen. He urged the Vice President to write down on the legal pad the reasons why he wanted to be president and the things he cared most deeply about and for which he was prepared to lose the presidency.

Hillary Clinton should heed this same advice sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we can envision another 200-plus group of advisers on foreign policy, and perhaps the same approach on energy policy, retirement policy, entitlement reform, tax reform, immigration, and on and on and on. The result will be another unwieldy, finger-in-the-wind presidential campaign which is slow, unresponsive and unimaginative, defensive, and uninspiring.

In the Reagan years, his admirers used to say "Let Reagan be Reagan." When Richard Darman and other Reagan advisers tried to cram the president's head full of facts and figures just before his first presidential debate with former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan gave a miserable performance during which he looked confused, befuddled, rambling and, possibly, too old for a second term. In his next debate, the usual story-telling, avuncular Ronald Reagan reappeared and, when asked by the moderator whether he felt he was physically up to the job, dispatched his opponent with the now famous quip: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Even Mondale broke into laughter. Reagan, of course, was reelected in a landslide.

So let Hillary Clinton be Hillary Clinton. If by this point in her career she doesn't know who that person is, then perhaps she should not seek the presidency in 2016.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation--United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.