Book Report: What Hillary Has to Fear

The soft landing of two major biographies of Sen. Hillary Clinton has calmed jittery supporters. The two books—"A Woman in Charge" by Carl Bernstein and "Her Way" by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.—provide thorough, and often critical, looks at the Democratic front runner's life and career. But they lack the juicy new revelations about the private life of Hillary and her husband that many in political circles had expected.

That said, the books do draw out what could be a problem for Clinton in a general election campaign: her perceived weakness as a manager. Bernstein's book, in particular, offers a harsh recounting of Clinton's disastrous turn running her husband's 1993 effort to provide universal health care. In this portrait, she is politically tone deaf, secretive and polarizing—and alienates Senate allies she needs to get the bill passed. Bernstein argues that many of the non-Monica scandals of the Clinton White House, like Whitewater and the firings of travel office staff, were exacerbated by Hillary's weak executive impulses. The books provide an early glimpse of a key Republican critique of Clinton should she win the primary—the notion that she lacks the instincts and experience to competently run the country.

Fortunately for Clinton, her opponents have yet to try to exploit that opening. Her two main challengers lack the executive experience to effectively critique her style. Barack Obama often speaks in the circular, measured tones of the law professor he is. John Edwards, a former trial attorney, is best known to Americans as the vice presidential candidate of the worst-run presidential campaign in recent memory. The one executive in the Democratic race—New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson—is low in the polls and has seemed unwilling to frontally attack Clinton. On the trail, Hillary has so far been quick to underscore how much she learned from the health-care debacle. Her positioning is shrewd: by proving that she can acknowledge mistakes, and learn from them, she frames herself as the kind of leader that, critics say, George W. Bush has not been.

But without much primary practice defending herself against charges she's a weak executive, Clinton may prove vulnerable on the management question in a general-election fight. Two of her potential Republican challengers—Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani—will claim to have proven track records as effective executives and disciplined managers of sprawling bureaucracies. They will no doubt try to contrast their experiences with Clinton's role in the management debacles of her husband's White House. A central theme of Clinton's campaign is that a Clinton restoration will mean the return of competent management after the tumultuous Bush years. The new biographies, however unsexy, don't help her make her case.