We are learning a lot about Hillary Clinton, or maybe I should say "relearning," as she barnstorms the nation to promote "Hard Choices," her new book. In one interview after another, she is providing reminders that she is not and never has been a natural politician. But she's also showing that when she is well-prepared and feeling comfortable, she is more than competent — funny, down to earth and formidable. If she is the 2016 Democratic nominee, Republicans will have to try to catch her off guard and hope her instincts don't improve.
Clinton is clearly ready for questions about her age and family name. When ABC asked her about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's comment in March that the 2016 Democratic field looked like a "rerun of 'The Golden Girls,'" she responded, laughing, "That was a very popular, long-running TV series." Then there was Barbara Bush's assertion that a great country like America should be able to find "more than two or three families to run for high office" (that is, families not named Bush or Clinton). "I don't see it as a problem," Clinton told USA Today, and again she was laughing.
Today's Clinton told NBC she wants to "feel the feelings around being a grandmother" and "focus on this baby," and wrote in "Hard Choices" about President Barack Obama kindly pulling her aside at a high-powered meeting to tell her she had something in her teeth. This politician is not the one who in late 2007 needed "The Hillary I Know" - a series of testimonials designed to make her seem likable as opposed to "likable enough," in Obama's dry phrase from their adversary days.
It was ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer's question about income that tripped up Clinton this week. "You've made five million making speeches? The president's made more than a $100 million?" Sawyer asked. The graceful political answer, given the couple's pensions and lucrative speeches and multimillion-dollar book advances, would have been about being grateful for her family's opportunities and her concern for those scraping by or worse. And she did give an answer like that — the next day, under prodding by ABC's Robin Roberts, after first messing up so badly that you could practically hear Republicans exhaling in relief.
So, that first answer. Clinton told Sawyer that she and her husband emerged from the White House "dead broke" and "struggling" with financial obligations that included two houses, a child in college and $12 million in legal bills, and "we just had to keep working very hard." Two of the many problems with that answer: Who doesn't work very hard? And now that the Clintons are fabulously wealthy, who remembers their church-mice phase?
Let's stipulate that they were indeed "dead broke" at the moment George W. Bush was inaugurated. But not for long. Between Hillary's Senate salary and Bill's presidential pension, they would have had about $300,000 in guaranteed income for 2001. Before she even left the White House, Hillary signed a near-record $8 million advance for a memoir. Her husband topped her in August 2001 with a record $10 million advance. And that was just their books. Their potential earning power was and remains limitless. Post-White House, they were never destined to "struggle."
After a 2012 campaign in which their nominee (an owner of multiple houses) talked about his Cadillacs, his rich sports-team-owning friends and the alleged moral failings of the government-mooching 47 percent, Republicans have seized the chance to call Clinton out of touch and tone-deaf. She has also came in for hilarious ribbing. "You know what was really ironic in '01 was when Hillary cut her hair to buy her husband a watch chain and he sold his watch to buy her combs," New York Post columnist John Podhoretz tweeted during the Sawyer interview (O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" in 140 characters). Podhoretz, on a roll, went on to tweet what the entire GOP consultant class was thinking: "tell me she can't be beaten. Sure she can."
Republicans are going to have their own problems in 2016, foreshadowed by this week's defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by an underfunded tea party challenger. If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, the GOP will also have to reckon with her capacity for self-improvement. Her second-day answer on the money was better than her first. She has written and talked about her "wrong" vote to approve the Iraq War and her lack of "a good strategy" in her 2008 campaign. She may even figure out a calm, clear, consistent way to discuss Benghazi. None of that will quiet the clamor, but it should discourage premature celebration by the opposition.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.