If Hillary can survive a nine hour Congressional grilling, she can survive anythingby Sam Tanenhaus / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
When it comes to choosing presidents Americans have preferences that often override differences of ideology and even party. We prefer them tall, trim, clean-shaven, with a full head of hair. Athletes rather than scholars: “star of the team, most popular boy, grinning reluctant stud,” as an envious, glowering Richard Nixon characterises his boss, President Dwight Eisenhower, in Robert Coover’s novel The Public Burning. It seems silly—until we realise how often the formula works: John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, Barack Obama.
There is no formula for women, because none has been elected or even nominated by one of the two major parties. Thus, the singularity of Hillary Clinton, who is making her second try for the presidency, and her second as the Democratic front-runner. Her own role model, she has said, is Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said, “I would rather be chloroformed than run for office.” Clinton hasn’t always matched Roosevelt’s upper-crust aplomb. But after a bruising spring and summer in which her poll numbers plunged, and a surprise rival, Bernie Sanders outflanked her on the left, she seems to have broken through to new mastery, and self-mastery.
The pivotal moment—or moments, there were many—happened on 22nd October during a long-awaited, wildly hyped event: Clinton’s appearance as a witness before a House of Representatives committee formed to investigate—actually, to re-litigate—the death of the US Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in an attack on two compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on 11th September, 2012.
The four were killed on Clinton’s watch as Secretary of State, and the episode had been examined exhaustively, in seven investigations, 13 hearings, and 50 briefings. The latest inquest had turned up a fresh controversy: Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business. Democrats accused Republicans of seeking not answers but an opening to attack Clinton’s presidential campaign. Republicans fiercely denied it, until the number two House Republican, Kevin McCarthy, bragged on television that the investigation had hurt Clinton’s poll numbers. With that admission everything turned. Clinton, famous for “doing her homework,” came prepared, and exhibited regal calm as she parried questions for nine hours.
When it was over, it was the seven Republicans who slunk away, looking beaten, while Clinton, four days shy of her 68th birthday, glowed through congratulatory hugs and then invited staff to her Georgetown house for a celebratory dinner of Indian takeaway, with beer and wine. Meanwhile, cash donations flowed into her campaign. The hearing “was really more of a telethon,” the comedian, Stephen Colbert said, before interviewing Clinton on his popular late-night show; the two discussed their favourite political dramas. (Hillary binge-watches House of Cards). Television has always been her best medium. A skilled mimic, she did a funny Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live (she played a bartender). Suddenly, Hillary—cuttingly described as “likeable enough” by Obama in a 2008 debate—tops the field in “relatability,” this year’s buzzword.
The explanation? She’s grown. Once seen as the entitled half of the nation’s First Couple (“buy one, get one free,” her husband half-joked when he first ran in 1992), Hillary—who ran in 2008 as a kind of American “Iron Lady”—has since matured into a battle-softened Everywoman. During her midsummer doldrums, amid loudening talk of her soaring “unfavourables,” few noted she had been the Gallup Poll’s “most admired woman” 17 of the last 18 years, overtaken only by Laura Bush after 9/11.
Like all good politicians, Clinton knows where her base is, and like all good leaders knows when to follow. When she refused to yield to Obama after the race was numerically lost in 2008, some accused her of vanity, or selfishness. In fact, she was staying true to her supporters, who had watched her bang up against the glass ceiling, heard the snickers about her hair and ensembles, felt her setbacks as their own… “Her voters were angry, they felt insulted, they had to be coaxed along,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote in their election book Game Change.
In a polarised and fractured time, Clinton’s pitch to those voters has become even more direct—and is shrewdly calculated. Women, who form the most powerful constituency in American politics, have voted in greater numbers than men in each of the last 13 elections, going back to 1964. Women also “lean Democratic by 52-36 per cent,” according to Pew Research, the demographers’ gold standard, because the party is seen as pro-choice ergo pro-women. If Clinton is nominated, those numbers could climb higher.
In truth, Clinton did possibly fumble Benghazi and may have been miscast at the State Department. But domestic policy decides most elections, and Clinton’s record is matchless, dating back to the landmark legal writing she did on children’s rights in her twenties. Even her botched healthcare overhaul in the 1990s, during the first Clinton administration, today seems the critical first step toward the programme passed by Obama 16 years later.
Why, she was asked during the Democratic debate (another of her October wins), should voters hand her a dynastic “crown” when the homespun Sanders is the ideal “outsider” candidate, suited to the moment? How better to send the outsider message, Clinton coolly replied, “than [by] electing the first woman President”?