The Deciding Decade: Hillary Clinton on her electoral college vote and gaining trust across party lines

Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is The Deciding Decade.

On this podcast, we have talked with so many remarkable current and future leaders, some as young as 13 years old, who have given us great hope for the decade and century ahead of us. And today to close out this series, I wanted to speak with one of the most recognizable leaders of our time, someone who has dedicated her life to service, someone who’s built wisdom through decades of experience and someone who channels all of that into the important work of encouraging people to organize, stay engaged and run for office. Someone who is helping to shape the decades ahead.

It is a real honor to have Secretary Hillary Clinton as our final guest in The Deciding Decade podcast. A trailblazing attorney, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, senator, Secretary of State, presidential candidate, author, activist, wife, mother, and grandmother. Secretary Clinton is one of the most accomplished public servants that this country has ever produced. And though you know this already, I can’t introduce her without pausing on the meaning of the fact that in 2016, she became the first woman ever to be nominated by a major party for the American presidency. She has inspired generations of women in the United States and around the world to believe in themselves and to reach their highest potential, to be gutsy as she and her daughter, Chelsea, often say. I have been personally inspired by her barrier breaking work, her command of the issues that face our country and her unstoppable dedication to service. Secretary Clinton, thank you so much for joining.

Hillary Clinton: Oh, it is such a pleasure to talk to you and I’m honored to be, I guess, your last guest for this season of your new podcast.

Pete Buttigieg: I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up the year. And we call it The Deciding Decade because it’s really about how the decisions that are being made now are going to shape the trajectory of the country, and that’s one of the things I really want to explore with you. But I want to begin with news from this week. This week began with you as a member of the electoral college casting your vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I think you and I agree that the U.S. would be better off without the electoral college as a matter of policy. As a personal matter, if it weren’t for the electoral college, you’d be the president of the United States right now. So I wonder what was it like to go through this process, to be an elector, and to have that chance to cast that vote?

Hillary Clinton: It was incredibly moving to me, Pete, because I feel like we are at such a pivot point in our country. And you’re so right about the name of your podcast, the decisions that we now have an opportunity to try to make, thanks to the outcome of the election, are going to be so consequential because frankly there’s a lot of damage to repair as well as trying to get back into big, bold ideas. And so when I was asked if I would be a member of the electoral college, I paused for a minute because I’ve been on record since 2000 advocating for its abolition. I think it has long outlasted any usefulness that it had. But at the same time, I thought it would be a good signal that we were all coming together to participate in this historic constitutional ritual. I could not have guessed how the attacks against the integrity of the election would play out and how desperate Trump and his enablers were to try to overturn the results.

So dropping that ballot in for Joe Biden and a ballot in for Kamala Harris made it feel like, okay, we’re really ready to move on from what we’ve had to live with the last four years.

Pete Buttigieg: I remember studying in the U.K., which is considered a constitutional country, constitutional monarchy, but never wrote their constitution down and I thought that was the strangest thing to try to get my head around, only to realize I think in the last year or so, how much of our system depends on the unwritten rules, like the idea that when you’re defeated, you concede. It doesn’t say anybody has to do that, it doesn’t say officially what happens or doesn’t happen and yet we’ve learned how important it is for our democratic legitimacy, how somebody who’s defeated in an election acts. And I wonder what you think it will take to shore up some of the dimensions of our democracy that are really only protected by everybody believing in them and everybody abiding by them, and if we don’t, it could all fall apart.

Hillary Clinton: Well, you’re absolutely right. And you wrote a whole book about the glue that holds a system like ours together, namely Trust, and there’s very little of it right now. It’s been badly damaged. And I think what President-elect Biden is trying to do is to lay the groundwork for unifying the country. It’s going to be incredibly hard because of all of the misinformation and poison that has been injected into the minds of so many Americans, but he is absolutely right to try. I think you have to bolster that in addition to setting an example and demonstrating with the values and the standards. The norms, as we like to say should be, we might have to take a hard look at trying to pass legislation that put up some more guard rails. And I’m sorry about that. I wish I weren’t even contemplating it, but there are certain things that maybe we haven’t passed on as we should or talked in school or civics that should be just assumed.

You mentioned one, like you have every right to make a fair argument against an outcome of an election if there’s evidence and facts to back it up. But when there isn’t, it’s time to retreat and concede. From what I know, talking to people on the Biden transition, they’re very focused on an agenda to protect our democracy, to protect our elections. And I hope that they’re going to be able to enact a lot of that because we’re going to have to change some of the expectations and the behaviors so that people get used to once more understanding what the rules are and accepting them no matter who says what on social media.

Pete Buttigieg: It’s going to be so important, I think, for us to find that ground truth that we can trust in knowing that information and misinformation is swirling around. And like you, I’ve seen how intentional President-elect Biden has been about trying to prepare us as a country for that. Speaking of the groundwork that’s being laid, I also wanted to ask you for advice in a way that I would be doing even if we were just on the phone instead of on a podcast. So right about the time this podcast comes out, we’re expecting to officially make the announcement that I’ll be nominated as Secretary of Transportation for the new administration. And so you were a Cabinet Secretary, one of the most visible cabinet secretaries in my lifetime. And the question I want to put to you is what does it take to be a good and effective secretary in a president’s cabinet?

Hillary Clinton: Well, first of all, congratulations.

Pete Buttigieg: Thank you.

Hillary Clinton: I’m thrilled by the news that you’re going to be nominated and hope that your confirmation is smooth and quick so that you can assume the responsibility. I think it takes several things, and you’re well acquainted having been in an executive position as mayor, running a city government and then of course, running a presidential campaign, which is quite an undertaking. First of all, you have to do the work. You have to really immerse yourself into transportation policy, into the workings of the transportation department. I had been involved in foreign relations, international matters for quite some time before President-elect Obama asked me to be Secretary of State. But I was blessed to have a great briefing prepared for me. The transition team cooperating with the outgoing Bush administration was ready and willing to give me a very in-depth education quickly about how the state department actually worked, not just the outside view, but from the ground up.

You should do exactly the same so that you are the master of your brief because first and foremost, you’ve got to demonstrate in any these cabinet positions that you’re going to be a good steward. You’re going to lead and manage a diverse, complicated department, and you’re going to be really grounded, literally in what it’s going to take to get results. Secondly, I think working with the incoming administration, you have to set some goals. What is it that the president will want the Department of Transportation to do? Clearly just from my looking at it from this perspective, you’re going to be part of climate change. You have to be part of the overall administration approach to climate change. You have to be part of trying to restore confidence in public transportation post-pandemic. We cannot deal with climate change. We cannot get essential frontline workers to their jobs if people are afraid to take public transportation.

What is that going to take and how much of an investment is required? I hope that you’ll be given the chance to advocate for high speed rail for other kinds of transportation that will set us in good stead for the future. And then finally, you’ve got to deal with all the legacy. You’ve got to do everything to make sure that roads are maintained and bridges are fixed. And you’ve got to look hard at what happened with the FAA, and it’s a hasty approval of the last big Boeing jetliner. All of that is in your bailiwick now. And so the nuts and bolts, getting it to run well, immersing yourself and understanding how it works now, coming up with how it should be changed to work better in the future and what are the signature issues that the president and you want to elevate?

So it’s a great time. I mean, autonomous vehicles are coming online. You’ve got all sorts of advances in powering transportation that I hope the federal government can help accelerate. So you’re in a great place to help shape the kind of future that we hope to have.

Pete Buttigieg: One of the things I’m really looking forward to is the chance to engage with a lot of mayors coming with a mayor’s eye view and in a lot of states. And I know that even though most of the country got to know you as a national figure, you were deeply involved in state and local government policy and advocacy. You co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, you chaired the Arkansas Educational Standard Committee. I wonder as we come into the 2020s, how you think the role of state and local government and politics has evolved, and what you think some of the opportunities ahead are?

Hillary Clinton: I think that’s such a great question, Pete, and I am a huge believer in the laboratories of democracy concept, both at the state and local level. We need to try different things, we need to learn from what states and cities do. We need to try to take successful initiatives to scale. I was really lucky in my work in Arkansas, you mentioned two things that I was involved in. And I combined that with a lot of my more national endeavors chairing the Legal Services Corporation, chairing the Children’s Defense Board, because there is nothing like that experience. Like, okay, practically, how do we go from point A to point B and what are the impediments? Because you have to know how state and local government work, especially if you’re at the federal level. Otherwise you can have the grandest of ideas, but even if you pass a piece of legislation, it may or may not be successfully implemented.

So you’re bringing to your federal service in the cabinet that kind of local experience. And of course, it shouldn’t make you a naysayer. They go, “Oh, it didn’t work here and therefore it can’t work anywhere.” But it should inform, especially new and bold ideas about what could work. How can we make federalism work better, for example? What are the big ideas and who’s been working on them in local communities? I served for my Senate years on the environmental committee, and for reasons that were interesting, we had the responsibility for the highway bill and for transportation. So within the ambit of the jurisdiction of the environmental committee, we had to reauthorize highway bills. We had to reauthorize public transit money.

So I learned a lot about what the federal government used to do. I can’t speak for where it is now, four years after the Trump administration. But you should get really briefed up on all of this. And I know that the transition has terrific people that can do that for you.

Pete Buttigieg: It’s part of what really excites me is plunging into that. And also the fact that like local government, it’s a relatively non-ideological field, at least it ought to be. Anything, as we’ve learned I mean, even public health measures can become partisan or ideological. But this is something that pretty much everybody wants to see happen, a better smarter greener infrastructure, job creation that comes with it. Infrastructure has always been, at least among the American people, maybe not always on the floor of the Senate.

Hillary Clinton: Right. But it sometimes takes just hammering away at it. And I remember when bike trails, rails to trails were really controversial on the committee on which I served. But there were a dedicated group of people who just kept raising it every time and kept saying, we need more bike access into towns and between communities, and the rest. And when they started, people kind of turned away from them and rolled their eyes. But now we can see the results of the kind of steady, insistent advocacy that can change, can change communities in my view for the better.

Pete Buttigieg: It’s a great point. As mayor, I benefited from what was clearly decades of pushing a boulder uphill. Because by the time I arrived in the early part of the last decade, you’d still took a push, I took a lot of heat for advancing it, but there was much more energy for that. So it’s a good reminder that that kind of change can happen and that you can be in a position to do something about it.

Hillary Clinton: And one last thing that I would just add is, make sure that the briefing you get looks at good ideas from around the world. Oftentimes, we don’t take advantage of the trial and error that’s gone on in other countries about how to move people around and what the choices are and the financing happens to be. So be sure that you’ve got that international view. I mean, I know it’s a hard sell, it’s hard to go to Congress and say, “Well, in the European Union or in Japan or China …” Because nobody wants to hear that. They want to hear, okay, I want you to talk to me about America. But if you have a good, basic understanding of what’s working elsewhere, then you can look as to how to Americanize it. How would it work? What are some other ways of dealing with connectivity and getting people from one place to the next in a cost effective way? And how much does any government have to subsidize that?

And to be fair, we have totally subsidized the automobile industry in so many ways for so many decades. And obviously, we subsidize the airplane industry and we don’t do it to the extent that we used to. And we actually had specific rules about how many flights had to go into certain small airports to keep them alive, we have moved away from that. But we should be thinking about what makes for a good livable society. And maybe re-adjust our thinking about the costs we’re willing to pay in order to create a much more functioning, productive society. And in a lot of rural areas that helps to attract and keep businesses, you can get there faster, you can get in and out faster. So I think it’s all part of a big hub of the issues that you’re going to have a great time diving into.

Pete Buttigieg: The point about rural communities is I think really important too, because this is something that can knit together, literally connect-

Hillary Clinton: Exactly.

Pete Buttigieg: … urban and rural, the moment when we have such kind of political, social, cultural, economic divisions between different kinds of communities. And I think about it from the perspective of my own community, South Bend. I mean, our city is named after a bend in a river and that waterway created trade routes. And then our community really emerged around the transportation industry, around vehicles. Train rail lines made the industry possible around here and then literally direct jobs from that industry as workers in this community built aeronautical components, Studebaker cars, really built us up. And today, in different ways but today too, this is such an important part of what’s made life in this part of the country possible. So it’s a really exciting field, I think.

Hillary Clinton: Oh, I do too. I’m very excited for you.

Pete Buttigieg: One thing I heard that you would begin your days with on the trail was a reflection on scripture. This is something I didn’t realize we had in common.

I wonder how, Democrats aren’t known for wearing our faith on our sleeve, and for very good reason, I think, because we’re very attuned, certainly in the LGBTQ community, just as one example, we’re attuned to the harms that can come when somebody seeks to impose their interpretation of their religion on someone else. But I sometimes wonder if we lose something as a party by not being as forthcoming about how so many of us come at faith. How do you approach that? How did you decide how, and when, and whether to talk about your own faith?

Hillary Clinton: It was sort of an evolving process for me because I’ve always been a person of faith. And I’ve always really drawn great strengths from not only personal advisors, clergy, and thought leaders in faith related subjects, but also from a lot of the reading that I’ve done.

And you’re right, that somehow religion has been cast as a partisan enterprise, where if you don’t believe certain things, then you can’t be a religious person, and in particular, a Christian.

And that’s just not what I believe. And it’s not what I was taught. And I don’t think it’s right. But it’s hard to stick your neck out if you believe that people are just going to take all kinds of pot shots at you. And the other side, on the religious divide if you will, is so dogmatic, and so well-organized that they, I believe, have as part of their agenda to delegitimize anyone who claims to be a person of faith who doesn’t ascribe to their political partisan beliefs.

So I think we have left the playing field to the other side. And maybe one thing that you can think about is to find like-minded people within the Biden Administration, and try to think through how best to present what to me, is an authentic understanding of one’s faith and the complexity of it that would do justice to our beliefs. And just trying to figure out how to bring basic values, principles of faith into everyday language and experience, because the other side basically is the faith of fear.

Pete Buttigieg: Yes.

Hillary Clinton: And I was always raised with the faith of hope and love. And so, for me, being understanding and compassionate about our complexity and our differences is something that we’re called to do. But we need people to work together to convey that more effectively. So we give more grounding to those who are people of faith like us, but don’t fall into the category of politicized religion right now.

Pete Buttigieg: So you’re also a veteran of the U.S. Senate, which is-

Hillary Clinton: Yes.

Pete Buttigieg: … a challenging place in the best of times-

Hillary Clinton: Yes, right.

Pete Buttigieg: … a place we don’t know yet whether we’re going to have a 50–50 Senate or divided government. But anyway you cut it, the President-elect is going to face a real challenge bringing people together, every member of his administration in every area will face that. What do you think is going to be the most important in order to succeed? And how do you separate the areas where there really is some hope of getting people to the table from the areas where you just have to watch out for bad faith?

Hillary Clinton: Yeah. It’s going to be very hard. I think it’s one of Joe Biden’s biggest challenges because his instincts have always been to bring people together, find common ground, work out some kind of acceptable compromise. And I’m amazed at what some of the members say that I actually served with. I was there for eight years. I was both in the minority and in the majority. And when I hear people say things who I worked with, I found common ground with, I sponsored legislation with, that is so negative and extreme. It’s really surprising and saddening to me. So I don’t think there’s any alternative to good old-fashioned relationship building. Because I think that a lot of the work that needs to be done can only, again, to go back to the theme of your book, be built on some kind of trust that is personal, and then you can go from there.

But I’ve also been thinking a lot and I’ve recently seen a few articles. We got rid of earmarks because they were abused and the famous bridge to nowhere, and everybody thought it was such a great achievement to end that kind of abuse of the public trust. The problem is that we didn’t have anything to substitute for working together. So for example, when I was a senator, I worked with a Republican member of the House who represented Buffalo, the Buffalo area in New York, to earmark money to help a local hospital expand its research capacity. It was certainly worthy. It withstood scrutiny. There was no funny business. But it brought us together, so we had a working relationship. And it led to a lot of local and state money, and private money being triggered by the Federal Investment, which built a research center.

And if you don’t have something that encourages people across party lines, and even now within our parties, to work together, to serve their constituents, then it unfortunately leads to number one, greater attention to donors and very extreme demanding interest groups, because that’s who’s knocking on your door. It’s not the Mayor of Buffalo or the City Council Member from Syracuse saying, “This bridge is falling down and we need federal help.”

It’s somebody saying, “Our way or no way for you. And your donations are tied to what we want you to do,” et cetera. And a lot of these members, then, were left without a story to tell. How are they spending their time? They can’t point to infrastructure. They can’t point to something that has been done, that they had a hand in helping to create, because it all goes through nameless formulas.

So I’ve been hearing recently that there is talk on both sides of the aisle, across the political spectrum, to try to bring back, what used to be called earmarks, but can be locally driven projects that would have to pass muster so they couldn’t be abused. But forcing people to work together on behalf of their constituents, because right now, you’ve got the Republicans basically captive of all kinds of forces outside themselves, first and foremost, Trump.

And they seem almost incapable of standing up and speaking out in favor of what’s best for their constituents, including what’s best for our larger democracy. They’ve got to be equipped with some things that enable them to do that again. So that’s one idea that’s been thrown around, because right now it is, who gets rewarded by the supporters and the interest groups that a favor you. And that may or may not have anything to do with your constituency.

Mitch McConnell is a perfect example. He lives in one of the poorest states, where people have really suffered, they’ve suffered under the pandemic, they’ve suffered under the economy. He has been resistant to providing additional help. He seems mostly interested in protecting a class of donors who want to be free from any liability if they get those meat lines, and chicken lines, and other kinds of work going again.

And somehow we’ve got to break that tie. And we need some civic bottoms up engagement. I remember when I was a Senator, people would come to see me from across the state when it was time to sort of come up with what we were going to promote that would, in their view, make life better in their community.

And they were, I would say, 90% worthy projects. And you couldn’t recommend them all. You couldn’t fight for them all. But it got people at the local level feeling like, I can count on somebody in Washington to listen to me about that bridge that’s going to collapse, or about this new education center that we are hoping to build. So yeah, I think we got to get back to basics almost.

Pete Buttigieg: Part of what you’re talking about, I think, is the reward system that is so out of whack. But that a healthy system that rewards good policy and good work, leads to more action. The other thing you mentioned is just interpersonal trust, and seeing each other as human beings, which is of course, especially challenging in national politics.

I wondered how you reflect on maintaining the humanity that you have when you participate in politics? Because I think, certainly becoming as visible as you have become, you get reduced to a cartoon character, a hero, or a villain. And I know even for me, in my short time in national politics, I was amazed by how quickly… I didn’t feel any different. I felt like I was the same person. I got up, put my shoes on, seemed like the same general human being.

In both directions, but seeing kind of what the world, or certainly the internet and Twitter, have to say about you. What have your ways been of just staying rooted and grounded in who you are as a person? And how do you keep that robust to all of these narratives, and images, and everything that just kind of swirls around you the more visible you get?

Hillary Clinton: I think that’s an incredibly profound question for anybody in the public arena now. With social media, it’s not just in politics, it’s in every walk of life if you are singled out, or you have attention for whatever it is you do.

But speaking about being involved in politics, what always has kept me going is the reward I feel from getting something done that I can really look at and feel like, probably but for my efforts, it wouldn’t have happened. That’s particularly true in the constituency work that I did, both as first lady and as a Senator, because it is so gratifying to find a way to help solve somebody’s problem. Even if it’s just one person in one place, it’s everything in the world of that person. It matters more than anything that they have this problem with the Federal Government, or some other entity, resolved.

And that reminds you, at least it reminded me, why I do this. Because there’s a lot of grief that goes with it, so much made up stuff. I’ve just been constantly, just incredulous about the stuff that is said and attributed to you.

So you got to have some, as you say, ground truth. You’ve got to feel like you are doing this for the right reason, and that you stay as open as possible. It is not easy to take the slings and arrows. But if you are comparing yourself to somebody that is really in a terrible spot, who has all kinds of health problems, who’s lost a child to gun violence, whatever it might be, it so helps you keep it in perspective.

You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t say, “Oh, poor me. They’re so mean to me,” et cetera. You just have to get up every day and say, “What can I do today? How can I make a difference?”

And there’s that great scripture about, “ Do not grow weary doing good, for in due time you will reap the harvest.” You have to believe that. You have to believe that you’re part of a larger movement of people who like you, want to be kinder, or want to be more compassionate, want to be more effective, juster, fairer, all the things that I believe in, and that you’re not going to let the naysayers tear you down and stop you.


Pete Buttigieg: There is so much to be learned from the deep well of experience that Secretary Clinton brings. From the local and state levels in Arkansas, the national level as presidential candidate and the international level as US Secretary of State. And I really admired what she said about retaining her humanity while in the public eye, how getting things done for constituents, solving problems for people, helping people, really has kept her grounded and motivated.

And as I wrap up this series with so much ahead for all of us, I want to leave you with an extension of that thought. As we work through the next few months, months that will continue to be difficult, and the decade ahead, which demands so much of us, I still believe more than ever that we’re on the precipice of a new and better chapter. And getting there is going to take imagination, boldness and inclusion. And every day is a chance to draw those values and that inspiration from those around us.

As a final word, I want to thank iHeart for helping us bring this podcast to life, especially our fantastic executive producer, Cristina Everett, who truly made it all happen. And I want to thank all of you for taking the time to listen. I’ve learned so much, and I hope you have too. And I’m looking forward to continuing this journey together.

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Husband, veteran, writer, Democrat, South Bend’s former Mayor Pete. Boot-Edge-Edge. (he/him)