THE BLOG
09/08/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

Gillibrand's In, Clinton's Not

Politico Magazine's September-October edition is just out with "The Politico 50," its list of today's biggest American political thinkers.

In her introductory letter, Politico Magazine editor Susan Glasser notes that, notwithstanding what her job might be one day, Hillary Clinton didn't make the cut. Wow, I thought: which women did?

I scanned the list. Here's what immediately jumped-out: Amy Klobuchar didn't either. But Elizabeth Warren did. And, so did Kirsten Gillibrand (how galling must that feel!).

And, what do these three current women U.S. senators have in common and in common with former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton? Well, that would be the desire to be U.S. President.

Which brought to mind the next question: whose strategy for getting there is the smartest? Gillibrand's or Clinton's? The strategy of those who stake-out a political presence based in significant part on big policy ideas, or those who don't? (Mind you, the idea of a woman running for president one day wasn't on Politico's big-50-ideas' list, yet it surely is one of the biggest political ideas around.)

Of course, that first woman U.S. president could turn out to be a Republican.

For instance, in the governors-who-could-get-elected-to-the-presidency group (so far, 17 have), Susana Martinez, New Mexico's Republican governor, is positioned well.Typical of a strong executive office candidate, Martinez is a lawyer, an ex-prosecutor, seemingly more moderate than likely competitors, a proven repeat vote-getter, and an historic figure (in her case, the first female Hispanic U.S. governor, meriting a place on Time's 2013 list of the most important people in the world).

Notwithstanding, today it appears that the first woman U.S. president is more likely to be a Democrat. And, on that prospective candidate list, conventional wisdom finds those in contention variously writing campaign-style books; traveling to Iowa; and furiously seeking press coverage, speaking and fundraising in key states, and spouting big ideas.

So, is it those ideas that will ultimately matter most? Or, is it political strategy? Let's review.

As Politico points out, Elizabeth Warren thinks it's ideas. Her big idea is to take a tried and true route for ambitious candidates in hard economic times: that would be the populist one. (Despite the irony of speaking from inside one of the most elite clubs in the world, we've seen presidential candidates like this before. Huey Long, anyone? Hubert Humphrey, anyone? )

Despite Warren's getting into the club by doing what all U.S. senators have to do, i.e., raise big money from those who would get rid of all populists if they could, Warren's stock-in-trade, (while demurring about running for the presidency), is economic policy reform benefiting "working people." How comforting does that sound to a suffering American public.

Then, there is Kirsten Gillibrand's big-ideas' strategy, also deployed while demurring about running for the presidency. Actually, the latter Gillibrand goal is right there in the Politico article, in remarks she made to NPR: "Sometimes people say, 'Well, why do you just focus on women's issues?' Gillibrand told NPR last year. 'Well, why do you focus on issues that pertain to 52 percent of the population? It's pretty important [electorally].'" And, tomorrow, it's her really big splash: off the sidelines and into the pool.

With this strategy, Gillibrand has detoured from her most conventional of political routes: daughter and grand-daughter of politicians, working to get herself plucked from obscurity because she has clout, having a pleasant (certainly not a feminist) profile, and not having big ideas. But conventional has another marker: that would be expediency. Gillibrand's got that one down.

I don't doubt Gillibrand believes in her new agenda, but she also surely knows that the political and cultural winds are at her back with this one. Not to mention the opportunities for unceasing soft media coverage, heartfelt expressions of support from beneficial precincts, and becoming a heroine to those who organize women donors and voters (the latter being decisive in presidential races). Not to mention her new approach has positioned Gillibrand to credibly raise lots of other peoples' money, and then give it away as though it were her own. Well, you get her drill.

Then, there is Amy Klobuchar's apparently-no-big-idea strategy, while also demurring about running for the presidency. It's "Minnesota nice," notwithstanding the fact that the last time Minnesota Nice ran for president, (he) lost 49 states. But Amy Klobuchar is no Walter Mondale.

More like Susanna Martinez, Klobuchar is a tough, hard-charging former prosecutor. She is good at finding the compromise that works, that passes the smell test, and at making big deals with dispatch. As a member of the Senate Consumer Protection Committee, she brilliantly positions herself as a friend of all American families. Klobuchar is following a path many have successfully trod, nicely championing family issues that can nicely cut across ideological lines in the course of building-up support.

Klobuchar's Senate Judiciary Committee membership provides the opportunity for her to demonstrate gravitas on the weightiest of American matters. As a consequence, some talk about her becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. But, that isn't Klobuchar's goal. She's with the Joe Biden program. (But, she's more prudent: she won't be quoting any obscure British politicians without attribution when her time comes.) Most like Hillary Clinton, she studies hard, does her homework, makes friends with men in power, and then leads them, seamlessly. Like Clinton, she's always in the mix, if behind-the-scenes (keep reading).

But big ideas do matter, particularly in these troubled times. When Clinton, unlike Glamor girl Gillibrand, isn't on an important list of America's big political thinkers, does it matter?

Well, we're in recess. Let's reconvene and assess after another Iowa steak dinner. (Klobuchar attended last year. Hillary Clinton will this year. I'm sure Gillibrand will be telling us more about her upcoming schedule tomorrow.) Meanwhile, I'll be looking for Politico's big 50 clout list (after all, I'm from Chicago), that list measuring frequent and unfettered access to the most private decision-making rooms. I'm betting Hillary Clinton and Amy Klobuchar make that one. Would Kirsten Gillibrand?