Last week Hillary Clinton gave what appeared at first to be a rambling and unfocused answer when asked to name the proudest achievement of her four years as Secretary of State. The short version is, she doesn't have one. But Clinton's words make a lot more sense when seen not as a non-answer to a specific question but as an effort to lay the foundation and establish a theme for a presidential campaign.
The occasion was her appearance on a panel discussion at the "Women in the World" meeting in Manhattan. It was pretty easy going; the moderator, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, asked softball after softball. (Sample: Noting Clinton's daughter Chelsea, Friedman asked: "What have you learned from her?")
Toward the end, Friedman turned to Clinton and said: "When you look at your time as Secretary of State, what are you most proud of, and what do you feel was unfinished, maybe love to have another crack at someday?"
Clinton and the audience laughed, because "another crack at someday" seemed an obvious back-door way of asking whether Clinton will run for president in 2016. But then she answered, and revealed something critically important about her intentions.
"Look, I really see my role as secretary, and in fact, leadership in general in a democracy, as a relay race," Clinton said. "I mean, you run the best race you can run, you hand off the baton. Some of what hasn't been finished may go on to be finished ..."
The answer seemed to concede that there is no single, momentous thing Clinton can point to as having achieved during her years as the nation's top diplomat. As she went on, Clinton instead linked herself to President Obama's achievements -- at least the Democratic version of them -- not in the field of foreign affairs, but at home.
"We had the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had two wars, we had continuing threats from all kinds of corners around the world," Clinton said. Obama told her his top priority had to be dealing with the economic crisis, so he asked her to "represent us around the world."
Clinton's job was to "make it clear to the rest of the world that we were going to get our house in order." But what did "in order" mean? Clinton described it this way: "We were going to stimulate and grow and get back to positive growth and work with our friends and partners."
On the basis of that "stimulate and grow" policy, Clinton continued, the United States returned to strength and can now deal with foreign crises like the Ukraine without having to worry about a world economic collapse. "I think we really restored American leadership in the best sense," she said. "That, you know, once again, people began to rely on us, to look at us as, you know, setting the values, setting the standards."
Clinton promised to provide "a lot of particulars" in her upcoming memoir, due in June. But those last few words are likely to be the book's message: She restored American leadership. Without any landmark achievement, she will claim credit — along with the president, of course — for restoring America's place in the world.
It's a vague and highly debatable argument. And in the end, at the "Women in the World" gathering, Clinton seemed to rely mostly on the Obama administration's domestic accomplishments — or at least her version of them — to shore up the case for her performance as Secretary of State. That is pretty much a non sequitur.
But in a larger sense, the "relay race" Image may turn out to be the key to Hillary Clinton's run for president. The campaign theme is pretty easy to sketch out. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, took the baton and ran with it, starting a period of great American progress. President George W. Bush dropped it, disastrously, but then Barack Obama picked up the Clinton baton and led America to recovery. Now it's time to pass the baton yet again. Should American voters give it to another Republican, who will surely mess things up like Bush, or should they hand it to Hillary Clinton, who will continue the magnificent work her husband began more than 20 years ago?
The "relay race" theme allows Hillary Clinton to surf on her husband's and her old boss' accomplishments, reaching many years into the past, without showcasing her own lackluster record. For Democrats, it will be a happy story. For everyone else, it could be a hard sell.