Hillary may win—but she is twenty years too lateby Bronwen Maddox / April 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
I’ve come late to a whole-hearted embrace of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President. Just when a whole flank of potential supporters—such as young women whom you might have assumed would back her—peel away and throw themselves into the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the blue-shirted, grey-haired senator from Vermont who describes himself as a socialist. She isn’t trusted, she’s not cool, is the chorus.
All the same, at this point in an extraordinary election year, it seems the most likely outcome that she wins the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. The prospect must then be though that she would have only one term in the White House, to be succeeded by someone more extreme.
I’ve liked Hillary since her husband was in the White House, while finding her, as many do, hard work to like. In contrast to Bill’s compulsively gregarious charm, she does politics by numbers; you can see the calculations in the phrases that stop a fraction short of cliché and convey nothing of character. But her early mistakes in Washington were forgiveable, I thought; the debacle of her healthcare reforms was the product of trying too ambitiously, with no political experience, to overcome an almost insuperable obstacle. The effort President Barack Obama had to make almost two decades later to modify the US’s healthcare system was a small vindication.
After that early, spectacular failure, her makeover—softer, sleeker hair, white silk shirts—and attempts to be simply First Lady were painful but not, it seemed to me, the indisputable sign of falseness as many took them to be. It seemed cynical too to hold that, when the Monica Lewinsky storm descended on the White House, she stayed with her husband only out of political ambition. Whatever their marriage lacked, the Clintons always had a palpable sense of a shared political project.
And then she got experience, plenty of it, as Senator for New York state. She got even more as Obama’s first Secretary of State; in that role, she was almost as good as it gets (although John Kerry has been even better—more committed, grittier, and with more of an agenda). She put in the air miles and the hours. What is more, she overcame the shock of her loss of the Democratic nomination in 2008 to the young, charismatic black senator, and accepting the job from him, got off to a faster start in it than he did as President. She should have been tougher on Israel over settlements—as Kerry has been—but she’s hardly the first on that score, and she did put women’s rights in the Middle East high on her list, telling off the region’s leaders for not sending girls to school.
So I liked her, but equivocally, acknowledging the reasons why people found her awkward—or simply can’t stand her. It was Janice Turner in the Times, in my view the best feminist columnist in the English language, who shamed me into supporting Hillary wholeheartedly this time round. What more does Hillary have to do to be elected, she demanded, in a searing February column. “Has any prospective world leader got a better CV?” she asked. “Yet now that makes her an establishment shill. Could any woman candidate have got so far, won enough donors, without being careful, tactical, triangulating every utterance against potential blow-back: playing the damn game.”
“She is being asked to jump a higher bar than Sanders, who’s been given too easy a pass. He hardly has a coherent set of policies”
Yet that is what now damns Hillary in the eyes of the “cool crowd”—including many young women—who flock round Sanders. I’ve been staying with friends in New York—natural Clinton territory—and teen daughters and an au pair in her twenties all chorused against me and their mother: how, really, how could you support Hillary? They were all for Sanders; they’re not alone.
These Sanders supporters don’t “trust” Hillary, a short word into which a lot is packed. It’s a feeling that she has not been open enough. The Whitewater controversy over property investments made by the Clintons is now lost in the mists, but the live case is her use of a private email account to send emails while Secretary of State. Agreed: “careless”—Obama’s word—doesn’t quite cover it, for someone not only trained as a lawyer but by now more than experienced in Washington’s ways and in the legal requirements of office. It has an air of making rules to suit herself, saying whatever will get her off, and when pressed, doling out the truth in little packets.
The bigger problem for Hillary, though, is that she does little to answer the rage against elites that is now rewriting American politics. The 2008 financial crisis brought this to a blazing heat, but it goes back further; it reflects two decades in which wages did not rise above inflation while the pay of Chief Executives soared in comparison to that of a typical worker (from a ratio of 1:20 in the 1960s to an astounding 1:320). The sense of unfairness and rage that this has provoked is redefining the politics of democracy. For that reason, if she wins, I’d guess she won’t win twice. To run a debt-laden democracy these days is almost impossible; it’s too unpopular to lecture people about austerity—better to seem on their side. If she does make it, she’s 20, maybe 30 years too late to make it work well for her. She is part of the establishment; there’s no point denying it.
Yet she’s being asked to jump a higher bar than Sanders, who’s been given too easy a pass. Supporters credit him with “speaking the truth” but he’s run nothing and hardly has a coherent set of policies.
For all the women in powerful positions in the US, it still seems more of an assault on expectations that a woman might be president than that a black man might be. That, plus her undoubted competence, may give her one term, almost certainly to be succeeded by someone who can better channel that public rage that isn’t going away. In that term, she wouldn’t be loved. But she would get stuff done. And like Obama, even if confronted with an obdurate Congress, she would, in the sheer fact of having made it to the top post, have shattered a crippling national taboo.