Hillary's Pitch: 5 Rationales for Her Election as President

Hillary's Pitch: 5 Rationales for Her Election as President
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Bill and Hillary Clinton were once such fans of Judy Collins that the singer’s version of the Joni Mitchell song “Chelsea Morning” inspired their daughter’s name. The 42nd president recalled enjoying as a college student one of the singer’s concerts in downtown Washington, and by the time he and Hillary met one another, Collins’ rendition of Mitchell’s love song “Both Sides Now” had become a radio mainstay.

But now it's just another show, you leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care don't let them know, don't give yourself away…
 Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way…

The both-sides-now aspects of Hillary Clinton’s life and ambitions are poised for replay. The rationales for her election as the nation’s 45th president -- at least the arguments she seems eager to voice beginning this week -- cut both ways. What seem to be assets are also liabilities. The best-known candidate with ample campaign resources, scant competition inside her party, and recognized policy and campaign expertise may have the weaker-than-expected hand.

America’s first woman president. Playing for history is not a slam-dunk if Clinton counts on women voting for her because she’s a she. “Women vote their party over their gender,” George Washington University Associate Professor Lara Brown, political management program director of the Graduate School of Public Management, told RealClearPolitics. “Women don’t see the gender identification as the primary thing that differentiates themselves,” at least when it comes to presidents.

Related: Hillary Clinton announcement video.

Clinton’s advantage is that women are a majority in the population, and more women than men identify as Democrats. If she wants to turn out more Democratic voters in 2016, wooing women is mathematically smart. Asking women voters to support her because she’s a woman, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother may be a campaign strategy, but it’s not a rationale for governing as president.

This is where Clinton’s “brand” will get a bit of a makeover. The public, according to polls, perceives Clinton as strong, smart, experienced, and not quite trustworthy. Trying to counter a persistent stereotype that ambitious women are cold and unapproachable, Clinton, who is 67, intends to soften the lens as she exchanges handshakes and poses for selfies through Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early voting states.

In a series of speeches in February and March, she told audiences a woman president could be the antidote to Washington’s dysfunction because women are proven listeners, team players and collaborative problem solvers (and by the way, she is booked April 23 as the keynote speaker at a celebrity-adorned women’s summit in New York City).

In most surveys, women politicians are deemed more “moral” than their male counterparts, which is a plus. But in Clinton’s case, polls are complicated. In laying out a case for her presidency, she will argue it’s time for a female president in 2017 because voters demand solutions that break gridlock and capitalize on relationships to deliver the best possible world to the next generation. In other words, it’s the right climate for a woman’s leadership skills in the Oval Office.

The flip side of that argument, however, is that voters may believe Clinton is not the only woman so qualified. What about Republican businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who has turned Hillary-bashing into a campaign plank? And how about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running, but watches with pleasure as grassroots admirers elevate her influence by trying to draft her. 

Granddaughter Charlotte, born in September, has become Clinton’s rhetorical bridge to America’s future -- her stated inspiration to put aside relaxing yoga classes and her carefully guarded privacy to fight for middle-class opportunities, especially for children.

Clinton’s well-rehearsed tales of becoming a grandmother and watching Chelsea and husband Marc Mezvinsky raise their new baby are part of an evolving narrative. The personal anecdotes also encourage Clinton to plant her policy flags with a lighter, personal touch.

Ready for Hillary = ready to govern. Clinton has maintained since the 2008 election that she possesses the experience and judgment to be president. The downside of having a lifetime record is that it reminds voters Clinton is a Washington insider who has been in the thick of American politics for more than 20 years.

In almost every presidential election since the Vietnam War and Watergate, the nominee perceived as the “outsider” went on to win. It’s why governors, including her husband (who became president at age 46 and would be first-spouse at 70, if his wife is elected), fare well.

“It’s really pretty irrational to think that an outsider can change a system they know nothing about,” Brown said, but when voters see “these amateurs fail, they decide it was `the system’ that was at fault.”

Clinton is no amateur, but she is perceived as having made mistakes and used poor judgment. The deaths of Americans in Benghazi, her destruction of emails that should have been stored as federal records in the State Department, and the Clintons’ family foundation ties to global donors are perceived beyond just GOP circles as disconcerting.

It is still the economy, stupid. Battling to improve opportunities for the middle class and the disenfranchised are policies at the heart of Clinton’s bid for the presidency. Narrowing the gulf between the haves and have-nots is at the top of her pitch to voters. She wants to raise the minimum wage and overtime pay, expand affordable child care, and support pay equity. How she’d tackle immigration enforcement in the wake of Obama’s executive actions, tax reforms stuck in the Republican-controlled Congress, and trade expansion, which divides her party, is unclear.

She has not attacked Big Banks, as Warren has, or disavowed Clinton-era economic masterminds, including Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, as the AFL-CIO has publicly suggested she do. The former secretary of state’s jobs platform is being written, and is likely to become a hybrid of Clinton-era policies, many of which were adapted by the Obama team, which has been steered by numerous Clinton-era White House veterans.

Clinton is more comfortable with policy than with campaigning. But politics and the makeup of Congress changed dramatically in the years since she exited the Senate. A Democratic presidential nominee with ambitions to pass laws through the legislative branch is going to need muscle and coattails to get other Democratic candidates elected first. Campaign placards about hope and change helped defeat her in 2008, and yet grandmotherly bromides about everyone needing to get along in Washington won’t rev enough Democratic voters to fill out ballots for House and Senate candidates.

Partisan contrasts and a “warm purple space.” During the March controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email account and a private server, her Twitter account suddenly roared to life.

In 140 characters or less, Clinton blasted GOP lawmakers for signing a letter she said undermined negotiations with Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Clinton vilified the majority party in Congress for blocking the nomination of the first female African-American nominee to be attorney general, and for complicating a bipartisan human trafficking bill with a GOP-inspired anti-abortion amendment. Most notably, on the five-year anniversary of the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, Clinton denounced Republicans for seeking to repeal legislation she said benefited women and young people. And when Indiana and Arkansas -- the state her husband governed for 12 years -- embraced religious-freedom legislation, Clinton echoed the national outcry that the laws condoned discrimination.

The tweets were an attempt to create a sharp contrast with Republicans, and to tie GOP presidential rivals to dismal approval ratings for the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Without having to finesse serious primary competition, Clinton took long aim when firing her Twitter shots.  

But beyond those tweets, Clinton claimed to be an aisle-crossing, bipartisan-loving, post-partisan leader. Her supporters believe she’ll tout her U.S. Senate career to demonstrate the accomplishments that are her own -- separate from her husband’s and from Obama’s. The downside is that her Senate career invokes an “insider” label that voters shun.

At a conference in Silicon Valley this year, Clinton said she wanted to "bring people from right, left, red, blue, and get them into a nice warm purple space where we're actually talking and trying to solve problems."

That kind of discussion is meant to appeal to younger voters (many of whom are strangers to the Clinton era of the 1990s), and whose confidence and trust in the American political system has ebbed, polls show.

“At one time President Obama was the candidate of hope -- beyond black and white, beyond red and blue -- that young people flocked to. Now disillusionment is on the rise,” said Michelle Diggles, who has studied millennial voter behavior and attitudes as a senior political analyst at the centrist think tank Third Way.

“If Secretary Clinton can reasonably say, `I worked with the other side to get things done without compromising core values,’ that could be an inspiring message in a world of gridlock and paralysis,” she added.

Clinton’s poll numbers may challenge her 2016 ambitions. In the wake of the email controversy, one recent survey of three key states showed sharp declines in her favorability ratings. She is trying to rekindle her extensive ties with the base of the Democratic Party, particularly its liberal wing, and to forge persuasive new bonds, including with young people, Hispanics, and older white voters. 

The Hillary Reset. Clinton lost a presidential election and wants to succeed the president who defeated her in that long-ago primary. Analysts believe a Clinton do-over can’t appear to voters to be fueled by personal misgivings or hubris. What is the rebuttal to suggestions of a Clinton “dynasty,” and criticisms that her core principle is “it’s my turn”?

Clinton acknowledged the pros and cons of failure during a March speech in which she encouraged progressive female candidates to strive for elective office at all levels of government.  Referring to candidates who “have won and those who have lost,” she added, “and I’ve been both.”

“You actually learn more from losing,” she said.

A recent Bloomberg Politics poll found 72 percent of Democrats and independents want Clinton to face a credible challenge for the Democratic nomination. Thus far, that kind of challenge is not on the horizon.

Her campaign team has booked small, voter-centered events at the outset of the campaign rather than big rallies as a way to free the candidate from the imposing Secret-Service-protected VIP bubble around which an enormous national and international press corps hovers. The strategy is reminiscent of her 2000 Senate race in New York, where the former first lady spent nights in residents’ homes and traveled on what she called a “listening tour.”

The Obama era has evolved into a different kind of political challenge for Clinton.  Does she argue she wants to extend Obama’s agenda? If not, is she hinting that she’s working toward a version of her husband’s third term? How would a Hillary Clinton presidency be different from either of the chief executives she studied so intimately?

Voters and the media, not to mention the GOP field of candidates, will press Clinton to move beyond her embrace of the health reform law; a pending nuclear deal with Iran; Obama’s approach to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; and a bevy of progressive policy antidotes for income inequality, to name a few hot-button issues.

One Democratic communications strategist said a key question facing the campaign is: “How do you harness [Obama's] popularity and use it to boost yourself through the primary but also to make it clear this is not a third term -- this a fresh campaign that will build upon many of the things the president has done, but also has new ideas?

"There are some stylistic and some theatrical things she’s got to get around, like coming across as presumptuous,” the strategist noted, “but the most important thing is connecting with folks on a real, emotional and human level, and having a message that taps into this angst and anxiety among many Americans that they're stretched, having a hard time saving for retirement, paying for education, and paying for basic needs at home."

In a new epilogue released Friday to her memoir, “Hard Choices,” Clinton recounted with fondness her final days serving in the Obama cabinet. She wants her campaign contrasts to remain focused on her Republican opponents, not on the president.

Once rivals, the two Democrats savored the work they shared, which she described as unfinished.

“It was a moment of bittersweet nostalgia, of satisfaction in what we had accomplished, delight in the partners we had become, and sadness that it would soon be over,” Clinton wrote of a final foreign trip with the president before she re-entered private life.

At the White House over a goodbye lunch of fish tacos, Clinton said she discussed with Obama a 20-page memo she prepared full of recommendations for his second term.

“On the way out we paused in the Oval Office,” Clinton wrote. “Tearing up, I hugged the president and told him again how much our work and friendship meant to me. And that I'd be on call if he ever needed me.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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