Hillary Clinton could use her huge popularity in America to help rescue the beleaguered president. Or to make a last bid for the top job herselfby Diane Roberts / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
On the afternoon of 3rd November, as the scale of the Democrats’ losses in the midterm elections became clear, President Barack Obama appeared before the television cameras, eyes downcast, lips pursed, chin puckered under the tension of his frown. At the same time, Hillary Clinton, his Secretary of State, was nearly 10,000 miles away in Papua New Guinea. She greeted women’s rights activists and planted a mango tree before flying off to negotiate with the defence ministers of New Zealand and Australia, scoring another diplomatic success. Despite the recent furore over WikiLeaks putting purloined State Department documents online, Clinton has had the best year of her professional life. In early December, Hillary Clinton told reporters that Secretary of State will be “my last public position.” She said she would most likely become an advocate for women and children. When asked if she had any intention of running for president she said, “No, I do not.” But politicians have been known to change their minds. Political strategists across America are still asking two questions. Might Clinton destroy Obama by challenging him in 2012, in pursuit of her one-time dream of becoming the first female US president? Or will she rescue him from his troubles by becoming his vice-president, or by working to transfer to him the reputation she has earned? Hillary Clinton is one of the most recognisable political faces in the world. Polls show that she is one of the most popular politicians in the US—far more popular than her boss. She appeals to discontented voters in the centre who long for the prosperous (if scandal-ridden) days of her husband’s presidency. After an election in which women were more prominent than they have been for decades, led by Sarah Palin and the “Mama Grizzlies” of the Tea Party, Clinton’s gender may also finally be as much of an asset as a handicap. Nearly 60 per cent of women voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Yet in the recent midterms, just over half of women who voted backed a Republican candidate for Congress or a state governorship. Obama’s strategists wonder if Clinton could bring these women back to the Democratic fold. Anne Kornblut, author of Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win, points out that, in the 2010 election, Democratic women stayed home, but argues that Clinton could prove pivotal in 2012. “She could restore a connection with women voters. Her visibility helps. People take her seriously.” Looking back to the jubilation on the night when Obama was elected—the ecstatic crowds that took to the streets in New York and Washington, the quarter-million cheering supporters who rallied in Chicago’s Grant Park—it is hard to credit the trouble in which the president now finds himself. He begins the third year of his presidency with approval ratings of around 46 per cent, down from 70 per cent when he first took office. Unemployment remains at 10 per cent, the highest for 27 years. Republicans take control of the House of Representatives on 3rd January, and plan to torment him with hearings on the BP oil rig disaster, the Wall Street bailout, healthcare reform, and on whether he has “gone soft” on Guantánamo prisoners. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has declared that the Republicans’ top goal—never mind Iraq and Afghanistan, the recession or terrorism—is to defeat Obama in 2012. Even Obama’s own party won’t give him a break. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a moderate, has complained that the president’s promotion of environmental policies and his perceived anti-business attitudes created a “toxic atmosphere” for Democrats before the midterms. Those on the party’s progressive wing, such as financier George Soros, one of the Democrats’ biggest donors, want Obama to close the prison camps at Guantánamo completely, allow gays to serve openly in the military and get serious about climate change. Meanwhile, across the country, almost everyone dislikes some part of Obama’s healthcare reform, one of his greatest achievements. He gets only the faintest of applause for saving jobs with the $800bn economic stimulus. Three of his economic advisers have departed, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has resigned to run for mayor of Chicago, and adviser David Axelrod has left to work on Obama’s 2012 re-election. His generals publicly reject his July 2011 deadline to start bringing US troops home from Afghanistan; Americans are angry with him for not ending that war, yet give him little credit for bringing 100,000 US soldiers home from Iraq. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is looking good. By accepting Obama’s offer to be his Secretary of State, she put the rancour of the campaign behind her far better than many had thought possible. She had been the favourite to be the Democratic candidate since she announced her intention to run for the White House on 20th January 2007, with two words on her website: “I’m in.” She remained the frontrunner until Obama’s wins in the primary contests began to add up and his grassroots fundraising took off. Diehard Hillaristas have never forgiven Obama for usurping the place they thought was hers. Given the acrimony, it is remarkable that she has. After all, she had been preparing for the job most of her life. In 1968, she was elected president of the student governing board of Wellesley College. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected president, she entered the White House as a new kind of First Lady, one who did not, as she said, “stay home and bake cookies.” She stood by her man during the Monica Lewinsky affair and his impeachment, spending hours in the White House gym as the House of Representatives extracted intimate testimony from the protagonists. Then she struck out on her own, becoming New York’s junior senator in 2000, the first former First Lady to win national elected office. Critics accused her of exploiting her husband’s connections and fame to win her first six-year term in the Senate. But once in office, Clinton’s intellect and skills as a negotiator became evident. Her charm, diligence, and mastery of the gargantuan defence budget impressed everyone on Capitol Hill. She joined a prayer group for members of Congress, earning the friendship even of ultra-conservatives such as Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who ended up asking her forgiveness for hating her. Under the Senate’s seniority system, it can take decades to be appointed to the most powerful committees. Clinton won a place on the Armed Services Committee in her second year, shortly before the US invasion of Iraq. In 2006, she exposed the contradictions of military strategy, when General John Abizaid, the top US commander in the Middle East, told the committee he did not favour building up troops, nor did he want to draw them down. While senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy and Joe Lieberman used their allotted speaking time to grandstand, Clinton went at Abizaid like a lawyer, suggesting he was trying to argue both ways: “Hope is not a strategy,” she said. Yet “hope” proved a winning slogan for the rival who dislodged her from the path to the White House. For all her expertise, when a charismatic but inexperienced young African-American senator with a compelling life story and a telegenic family came along, the country fell in love with him. Clinton’s core supporters, including longstanding feminists who identified with her struggles to make it in male-dominated politics, were furious. Like Clinton herself, many had participated in the civil rights movement and would have been delighted to support a black presidential candidate—just not when Hillary was running. Women, black and white, felt that America had been here before, forced to choose between the competing claims of two long-oppressed groups. In the 19th century, the abolitionist and feminist movements were linked: freedom for slaves should mean freedom for women. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the US, borrowed anti-slavery discourse in her Equal Rights party platform, calling on “all the citizens of our Republic, irrespective of sex or race, to unite in reasserting the truth of the doctrines laid down by our fathers in 1776, and sealed with their blood in the war of the Revolution.” Woodhull, who was also an advocate of “free love” and birth control, was vilified as “Mrs Satan,” and called a prostitute and a “monster.” She spent election day in jail, having been arrested for “indecency” when the newspaper she owned printed a story accusing a well-known clergyman of an affair. At the time, former slaves could vote—as long as they were men. Women would not be able to until 1920. The 50-year gap between constitutional recognition of black men as citizens and women as citizens has long been a cause of friction among America’s progressives. Some commentators in 2008 compared the primary contest between Clinton and Obama to the feud between Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over a century before. Douglass was a runaway slave turned abolitionist superstar; Stanton organised the pioneering convention on women’s rights in 1848. They had similar politics: Douglass advocated women’s suffrage; Stanton called for an end to slavery. But after the American Civil War, the two fell out. In 1869, the 15th Amendment, giving black men the right to vote, was ratified. Women were excluded from the franchise. As historian Debby Applegate, writing in the New York Times in May 2008, put it, Stanton and her sister feminists were told by “their allies in Congress that public opinion left room for just one minority group to make it through the door of suffrage and that this was ‘the Negro’s hour.’” Of course, this isn’t 1869, but the historical resonance added to the bitterness of Clinton’s loss. Obama didn’t do himself any favours with women when he curtly described her as “likeable enough” in the debate before the New Hampshire primary (which she won). It didn’t help her with minorities when she seemed to diminish Martin Luther King’s importance, suggesting that his dream only “began to be realised when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act.” Things only got worse when Bill Clinton—famously called “America’s first black president” by Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison—dismissed Obama’s victory over Hillary in the South Carolina primary, suggesting it had happened only because he was black. It is to her credit that Clinton put the bitterness behind her to take the high-stakes job of Secretary of State. After a muted start, she can claim a list of successes. She has helped craft new sanctions that have real bite on companies trading with Iran. She has helped to salvage at least the fragments of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process from an Administration policy that lurched into confusion. She gives off an air of resolve that often eludes the president: her condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Georgia was uncompromising. So was her reproof of North Korea when, in July, binoculars in hand, she stood at the edge of the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. If she can manage to get the Strategic Arms Reduction treaty with Russia ratified by the Senate, it will be a major victory. The result is that where Republicans excoriate Obama for his foreign policy, they largely give Clinton a pass. Looking good: Hillary Gates with Defence Secretary Robert Gates looking towards North Korea in July As always for a female politician, harsh comments are reserved for her appearance—above all, her hair. In a graduation speech to Yale University students in 2001, Clinton herself drily noted that Yale Law School had failed to teach her the vital life lesson that: “Hair matters… Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.” She was right. The nation has been analysing her coiffures for 20 years, going back to the velvet hairband days of her husband’s first term. The Washington Post recently defended her decision to grow her hair to shoulder-length, supposedly forbidden territory for women over 50. In September, when she adopted a scraped-back hairstyle, it provoked debate on the Huffington Post, Forbes, Fox News, and the chatshow The View about whether it was a good look (it wasn’t, they concluded). Even if her hairstyle isn’t always popular, she is. An October CNN poll gave her a favourable rating of 62 per cent, surpassed only by her husband Bill, with 63 per cent (Obama was at 48 per cent). This is a dramatic shift from the 1990s when she was reviled by half the nation. She was pilloried along with her husband for the Whitewater finance scandal, which dogged his last term as governor of Arkansas and his first term as president. She was also attacked for over-reaching. Bill Clinton promised voters what sounded to critics like a co-presidency: “Buy one, get one free,” he said, but her over-ambitious healthcare reforms imploded in Congress. Even during the Lewinsky affair, her support fractured: some women despised her for not leaving him. Others disliked what they saw as her cold ambition, staying with an errant spouse because he might help in her quest for power. Hillary-hating was once a national industry. Amazon.com still sells a Hillary Clinton voodoo doll ( “Stick it to her before she sticks it to you!”). Dozens of websites and books claim that she is a lesbian or an “Illuminist sorceress.” Long before Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell insisted “I’m not a witch,” Clinton, a Methodist, was accused of practising paganism in the White House. (She did hold a sort of séance where she imagined talking with Eleanor Roosevelt). Some of these stories hang on in the right-wing blogosphere, and there was a recent eruption of recession-driven envy over the $2m wedding of the Clintons’ daughter Chelsea. Yet, in November, Newt Gingrich, the Republican former Speaker of the House, who once referred to her and Bill as “enemies of normal Americans,” praised her performance as Secretary of State and said she’d be an equally “terrific” defence secretary. Pro and anti-Hillary campaign merchandise Despite her protestations to the contrary, might she be tempted to use her new popularity to run for president in 2012? When on 8th September 2010, she called the national debt a “security risk,” some took it as a sign that she would try to deprive Obama of a second term. The paraphernalia of a campaign are springing up, even though there is no campaign. “Run, Hillary, Run” T-shirts are on sale. A television commercial bankrolled by a dentist in Illinois has appeared in several cities, trumpeting “Hillary Clinton for president. Start Now. Where there’s a Hill there’s a way.” Though Clinton has said she doesn’t intend to run, speculation will flourish as it suits both right and left. Clinton’s loyalists are still angry that Obama seized the prize they thought was rightfully hers. James Carville, the outspoken Democratic strategist known as the “Ragin’ Cajun,” recently snarled that “if Hillary gave one of her balls to Obama, he’d have two.” Clinton’s most unlikely cheerleaders are conservative Republicans eager to exploit divisions among the Democrats. During the 2008 primaries, radio talkshow host Rush Limbaugh launched “Operation Chaos,” a scheme which encouraged Republicans to change their party registration to Democrat and vote for Hillary in the primaries, thus impeding Obama’s path to the party’s nomination. Fox News pundits Bill O’Reilly, Bernard Goldberg and Dick Morris, former Bill Clinton adviser, have said they were confident that Clinton would beat Obama in the primaries for the 2012 nomination. That could set up a “catfight,” as some commentators have gleefully called it, between the current twin female icons of US politics: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, known to their supporters as simply “Hillary” and “Sarah.” Palin is already acting like a candidate. She has her own fundraising organisation, SarahPAC, and will visit Iowa, a state which holds a key early presidential caucus, three times on tour for her new book, America By Heart. By contrast, Clinton has kept a low profile in the US. In the run-up to the midterms she was, by choice, largely invisible, while her husband crisscrossed the country, campaigning for Democrats. Clinton knows challenging Obama for the presidency could be a death blow to the Democrats’ chances of keeping the White House. They suffered this fate in 1980, when Senator Edward Kennedy tried to win the nomination away from Jimmy Carter, dividing the party and handing the White House to Ronald Reagan. Despite that history lesson, there is talk that Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a champion of the left who has just lost his Senate seat, might take on Obama. But Clinton is thought too loyal to the party, and too conscious of the risks, to do the same. Not to be deterred, Washington’s rumination machine will not give it up. So Hillary won’t run in 2012. But what about 2016, when the two terms permitted to Obama are up? Clinton would then be 68. Some pundits think that is too old, but Ronald Reagan was nearly 70 when he became president. Or what about becoming Obama’s vice-president, ousting the gaffe-prone Joe Biden? She’s denied that, too. But Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist who has been ferreting out White House secrets since the Watergate scandal in 1972, says that Clinton swapping jobs with Biden “is on the table.” It is unclear why she would want to give up being Secretary of State, a job where she can make her own mark, for the notoriously insubstantial vice-presidency. But it is clear why Obama might want her to. He could use her presence on the ticket to woo back women voters. Reporter Peter Wallsten, who has covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, doubts she covets Biden’s job, but agrees Hillary is vital to Obama’s re-election: “Democrats need white women, plus working class and centrist voters, to return to them. Without them, the Obama coalition will have trouble in 2012.” Women played a central part in Obama’s election, but in the midterms, they didn’t turn out for the Democrats and the Republicans captured the House. The races were dominated by a crop of new, Tea Party-backed Republican women, many of whom failed to win, but gave a markedly female face to the campaigns. Sharron Angle challenged Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada, and Christine O’Donnell attracted global attention as Delaware’s Republican nominee for the Senate. In California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina tried to oust Senator Barbara Boxer, and Meg Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, spent $141m of her own money running for governor of California. Less high-profile Republican women won a record number of governorships: Nikki Haley in South Carolina; Mary Fallin in Oklahoma; and Susana Martinez in New Mexico. Women in US politics still come in for the kind of demonisation that Victoria Woodhull suffered in the 19th century. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the villain of choice for Republicans in the midterms: in a Florida advert, a man holding a gun says he feels threatened by Pelosi and her fellow liberals. A web video by the Republican National Committee shows Pelosi in what appears to be an inferno and says “Fire Pelosi! No More Madam Speaker!” The insults got personal and sartorial: Carly Fiorina dismissed Barbara Boxer’s style as “sooo yesterday,” while the media’s obsession with Sarah Palin’s Naughty Monkey stilettos got silly. Yet for all the hype and fashion commentary, there was a sense in November that the novelty of women in politics may be fading, just because they are much more common. Women have, as the Virginia Slims slogan said, come a long way in US political life during Clinton’s professional lifetime. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a major party ticket. In 1992, when Hillary entered the White House as First Lady, four women were elected to the Senate, bringing the total up to six (out of 100). Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2006. Three women have now been Secretary of State. Yet in 2011 there will be fewer women in Congress than in 2008, just 17 per cent, with 73 House members (out of 435)and 17 Senators. It’s low compared with the House of Commons, where 21 per cent of seats are held by women, the Swedish parliament, where 46 per cent are women, or India, which requires that one third of seats be set aside for women. If Clinton declines to jump into electoral politics again, she could help Obama while remaining Secretary of State, both in his battles with a divided Congress—where respect and admiration for her remain high—and in preparing for his re-election. Should Palin become the Republican nominee in 2012, Clinton’s gravitas and knowledge would be an important counterweight to Palin’s celebrity. Clinton might be able to deliver a big foreign policy trophy to Obama: movement towards the creation of a Palestinian state, or human rights progress in China. As the nation’s chief diplomat, the Secretary of State traditionally stays above politics: “She can’t campaign overtly,” says Wallsten. “But you’ll see her out giving speeches, reminding centrist white Democrats that they can still relate to the Obama Administration.” Kornblut suggests Clinton might even step down from her position before 2012. “Then,” she says, “she could campaign for Obama. She’s a loyal Democrat and she and Obama have patched everything up.” It seems most likely that she will help him from her current post. And after that? Most Secretaries of State don’t serve more than one presidential term. If Obama wins in 2012, he might well appoint someone new. Hillary could then, as she has said, retire from politics, becoming president of Yale or head of her own think tank. She may indeed, as she suggests, take up the cause of women worldwide. Or she might look to be a federal judge or even to join the US Supreme Court, an appointment for life with enormous power to shape the country’s future. Clinton has wanted to be president for so long that another attempt cannot be ruled out. Politics is the ultimate never-say-never situation. But at this point, it seems highly unlikely. She may content herself with knowing she has paved the way for other women. When she conceded the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, she told her broken-hearted supporters they had put “18 million cracks” in “that highest, hardest glass ceiling.” Referring to the many American female astronauts, she said: “If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House.” AMERICA’S EQUAL RIGHTS PIONEERS Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president of the US, in 1872. She was demonised for her equal rights platform at a time when women did not have the vote. After divorcing her second husband, she moved to England, married again and published a magazine. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was an early feminist, although women waited almost 20 years after her death in 1902 to get the vote. In favour of interracial marriage, she campaigned with activist Frederick Douglass, a former slave. Named as Woodhall’s running mate, Douglass was the first black man to be nominated as vice-president, although he never actually stood.