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With Donald Trump busy spreading havoc around the world—most recently tweeting about James Comey’s testimony, or feeding into the crisis over Qatar—it’s reasonable to ask who can be bothered to gripe about Hillary Clinton. But I can. One makes the time. Or maybe one doesn’t, but in a two-party system there’s only one alternative to the party of Trump, and the role of Clinton in that party is therefore important.

Lately, it has been increasing. Hillary has been making high-profile public appearances and started talking frankly about her distaste for Trump and her dismay over the people and things that cost her the election. She has even founded a PAC called Onward Together, a 501(c)(4) that will “advance progressive values.” Whether we like it or not, the Clintons are back in the game. It’s up to the rest of us to figure out if we approve.

Just about everything we do lends itself to a generous or hostile interpretation. Our friends think we feed the poor because we have genuine compassion, and our enemies think we do so because we want to look good. The benign take on motives isn’t always closest to the truth, but it’s the better bet. (On the occasions that I’ve had an inside view of something in the glare of the press, those with the darkest take on it have usually been wrong.) I’ve been tough on Chelsea Clinton—hard not to be—but Hillary Clinton has a much higher accomplishment-to-self-regard ratio. So why not start generously?

Let’s posit that Hillary Clinton loves America and wants the best for it, whatever the merits of her ideas. That comes out even in small ways. When Sid Blumenthal sent Hillary a strategy e-mail headed “Because I like to waste my time,” she responded, “And because you care about our country.” You may see sanctimony there, but I for one see something heartfelt. When comedian Zach Galifianakis asked her if she would flee to “one of the arctics” if Trump won, she responded, “I would stay in the United States. I would try to prevent him from destroying the United States.” As no one doubted she would. The Clintons may be slippery, but they don’t flee. They’re far likelier to go for a Yeltsin-on-the-tank moment if it’s offered. (Of course, in keeping with the rule of generous and hostile interpretations, some dismiss Boris Yeltsin’s heroism that day as grandstanding.)

Like her husband, Hillary also has a resilience that is superhuman. Most of us would find it impossible to live with special prosecutors and countless enemies plotting our downfall, but Bill and Hillary just keep going. Al Gore never seemed to recover from losing in 2000, and he went dark for a long time. But Hillary Clinton is already back in the arena and swinging fists.

In an ideal world, former candidates and presidents would maintain a dignified silence about their rivals or successors, as most past ones have done, but Donald Trump has changed cultural expectations. He observes few niceties, and he lacks restraint or dignity. Expectations of “worthy” behavior from Clinton under the circumstances amount to expectations of unilateral disarmament. What’s more, Clinton talks to countless people who are looking to her for resolve and encouragement and leadership. How can she let them down and go silent?

Or so one could argue.

But we can’t stay friendly to Hillary forever. There’s a fine line—or maybe not even so fine a line—between boosting morale and monopolizing the spotlight. One reason Bill Clinton was able to make a name for himself decades ago was that previous candidates had the grace to get out of the way. Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis weren’t trying to place themselves at center stage during the campaign of 1992. The Clintons, by contrast, kept sticking around. When it comes to power, and a few other things, they can’t control their urges. As a friend of mine recently wrote to me in an e-mail, “They both had to be president?”

Even the name of Clinton’s PAC has a presumptuous ring to it. When someone has driven a bus off the road and hurled passengers out of their seats, it’s a bad time for the driver to stagger back to the wheel and call out “Onward together!” Onward, fine. Together, maybe not.

All of this would be easier to take if Hillary were on a crusade for a distinctive cause, in the manner of Bernie Sanders or Pat Buchanan or Jesse Jackson or Ross Perot. But when she offers her take on the world, she speaks in clichés and vague generalities like “progress” versus “turning back the clock.” Such teleological smugness (to which Barack Obama was likewise prone) doesn’t just attract the ire of conservatives; liberals can get miffed, too. Is “progress” on the side of expanding NATO or the opposite? Is it on the side of greater National Security Agency surveillance or of less? Is it in favor of immigration amnesty or high-tech border security? We all want to move forward, but maybe we’re not all facing Hillary’s way.

Even without a clear cause to illuminate them, Hillary’s beliefs could have been sharpened a lot just by explaining what, in hindsight, she felt Bill got right or wrong in his presidency. But she never offered up such a critique, nor, oddly, did anyone really press her to do so. Throwing open our markets to China as much as we did—that looked wiser back then. So did deregulating the financial industry. So did pushing for three-strikes laws. So did the bailout of Mexico. So did focusing on deficit reduction. So did high levels of immigration. So did humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia. So did welfare reform. Bill’s calls, like all big calls, were controversial, but they were far more justifiable in light of the data we had at the time. But what about with the data we have now?

Negotiating a different landscape requires the Democratic Party to return to some basic questions. Times have changed. America is no longer a lone hyperpower triumphing amid squabbles about same-sex marriage. We’re an overstretched empire fighting about fundamental questions of economy and national identity. The Clintons see that, sort of, but they’re stuck in time. Worse, their network, which is vast and powerful and heavily dependent on them, is stuck in time, too. Precisely when those on the left ought to be negotiating today’s fault lines and creating new coalitions, Democrats are getting dragged back into last year’s fights and letting personal loyalties drown out thoughts about core principles. The indefatigability of the Clintons isn’t just a nuisance but a hindrance.

We can’t expect them to accept this, of course. Psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, has famously observed that optimists tend to do better in life but exhibit more delusion. They tend to attribute failure to changing external factors rather than enduring internal qualities, blaming outside causes, not themselves. Hillary—who has been pinning her defeat on Comey and Vladimir Putin and the Democratic National Committee and Wikileaks and “a thousand Russian agents” and high expectations and the press and sexism and voter suppression and, for all I know, static cling—is a major optimist. That’s great for persistence and mental well-being. She’s ready to keep driving the bus. But it’s not so great for knowing when to quit. That’s where the passengers come in.

Full ScreenPhotos:Hillary Clinton’s Election Viewing Party: Tears, Pantsuits, and So Many Emotions

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.

Photo: Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.


Photograph by Justin Bishop.



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