World

Hillary: She who will be the first Madame President

By J Brooks Spector 16 August 2013

Okay, we know that South African readers almost certainly are completely consumed by the aftermath of Marikana, the on-going bob-and-weave agonies of Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi, the growing catastrophe that is Egypt and even the politics of a rowdy tripartite alliance as it confronts the electoral challenges of the country’s other parties – Agang, the DA, the EFF and the rest of the mini-me’s. Maybe there isn’t room in people’s minds for one more thing to have to think about – but we’re going to make the case for it anyway. Because that’s our job, to keep readers informed of what is just over the horizon before it is visible. And so here is why you need to start thinking about Hillary Rodham Clinton again. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

You might be thinking Americans have only recently undergone a presidential election and that there is plenty of time left before they inflict such a thing upon the world again, filling up all available space on the international all-news television channels. But you’d be wrong.

Let’s look at the calendar. By the end of this month, it will be exactly three years until the two major political parties in America ratify their selections, via all those primary elections across the country, of their respective presidential and vice presidential parties. Three years.

Working backward from August 2016, this means primaries would start around two years and four months from now. And the organization to run in those primary campaigns, therefore, has to be coming together, to be gelling seriously, less than two years from now. Following usual practice, exploratory committees to begin to raise money, to build an initial online presence, to beg, borrow, buy or create vast databases of supporters (as volunteers, contributors and participants in the myriad of other tasks) would have to be underway about a year or so from now. And that, in turn, implies an averted gaze on the part of a pseudo-candidate while their truest friends and political activists begin the process of setting up a committee or two, or seventeen, to try to encourage a putative candidate to become a real one. This effort would be based on an upwelling of support noted from would-be voters, as part of a carefully cultivated and nurtured, but-oh-so-spontaneous rise in support in the inevitable polls and an increasing wave of sympathetic press coverage. And that final bit, gentle readers, would be starting to happen just about now.

And in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s case, that is exactly what is happening. This writer’s e-mail in-box is already filling up with notes from informal committees, all attempting to generate a sense of that wave of inevitability on behalf of a Hillary Clinton candidacy.

There are several key things about Clinton’s so-far non-candidacy that deserve further discussion. The first of these is her current whereabouts and what she is likely going to be doing until she actually begins campaigning. The second is her biography and CV, and her larger place in American politics. The third is a sense of her likely opposition, and her strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. And the fourth, of course, is whether or not she will run. Let’s take them one at a time.

For the first time in decades, really, except for the brief period between leaving the White House in early 2001 and her election as senator from New York, she has been in the public eye for around four decades. As she was graduating with her BA from Wellesley College back in June 1969, she was the first student in that school’s history to serve as a commencement speaker at the school’s graduation ceremonies. That speech received a seven-minute standing ovation and some important national notice in the pages of Life magazine. It became her first major national profile moment in a life that would eventually become filled with and transformed by them.

Following Wellesley, she entered Yale Law School and met her future husband. They both graduated from Yale and both worked on George McGovern’s doomed presidential campaign. She worked on the Watergate hearings, but then decided to follow Bill to Arkansas. They got married; she worked in legal areas like child welfare and children’s rights. Eventually they moved into the governor’s mansion when Bill Clinton was elected governor of that state in 1978. She felt first taste of failure when Bill was marched out of the same mansion in 1980 by voters angry with the sharp increase in taxes. But she also tasted sweet revenge when Bill came back only two years later. From Little Rock, the Clinton’s moved onto the national stage in a big way as he entered the presidential chase for the 1992 Democratic nomination, in what was eventually dubbed “the perpetual campaign”. He won convincingly, perhaps in part because of his wife’s willingness to campaign vigorously on his behalf, even in the face of those infamous “bimbo eruptions”.

Photo: Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore celebrate during an election night victory rally at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock early November 4, 1992 (Reuters)

Eight contentious years as First Lady in the White House followed, not least of all for that famous “stand by your man, ver 16.0” moment in the wake of the impeachment, and an earlier collapse of the White House health care reform initiative which she was intimately involved in and blamed for. And let’s not forget and those muzzy White Water investigations that eventually uncovered the Monica Lewinski affair and precipitated Bill Clinton’s farcical impeachment. After a brief respite to set up official residence in New York, Hillary Clinton was elected as a Democratic senator from New York. She held the position until she became secretary of state in Barack Obama’s first administration in 2009, after losing the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2008 in a hard-fought campaign that pitted the first African-American candidate against the first woman candidate. She ultimately didn’t break that so-called glass ceiling, but, as she said, her campaign had given it a thousand cracks.

Photo: U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks to the media after being announced by U.S. President-elect Barack Obama (L) as his choice for U.S. Secretary of State along with General Jim Jones (R) as his choice for National Security Advisor during a news conference in Chicago, December 1, 2008. Obama, who takes office on January 20, has pledged to be more inclusive and says he has a vision of renewing America’s leadership in world affairs after President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

Thereafter, Clinton served over four years as secretary of state where she visited dozens of nations and racked up nearly a million air miles in her personalized brand of diplomacy, championing, among other things, reaching out to the world’s youth and female populations, along with that famous “reset” effort with Russia.

Commenting in The New Yorker, John Cassidy had said of her tenure: “She was incredibly diligent, as she always is. She flew all over the place; she logged nearly a million miles; she visited 112 countries.” Still, Cassidy didn’t rank her among America’s great secretaries of state, who “tend to be associated with big foreign-policy doctrines”. Clinton’s role, Cassidy explained further, “was as the sort of front man for the U.S. while [Obama] was busy taking care of business at home”. Perhaps that left too little time to articulate a formal, clear vision for America’s place in the world, or perhaps such a task has been elevated upwards so that only a president gets to do this on the world stage.

But then, suddenly, after that great swirl of activity for all those decades, Clinton was without any official position, public office, automatic job title, assigned duties, or permanent staff. As such, she has been tempted with a whole host of ideas and opportunities while she decides what to do with the rest of her life.

What she has apparently elected, at least as a first step, is to take a position – still be fully refined and defined – in her husband’s foundation, now renamed the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation. By doing this, Hillary (which is what she will inevitably be called by everyone, and what will be used on the inevitable campaign buttons, digital and printed stationery, and bumper stickers, as she comes to resemble a presidential candidate more and more) gets to ride the wave of the foundation as it rebuilds and restructures to strengthen its management, streamline its operations, build a secure endowment and focus its activities more tightly. Not so accidentally, this also gives Hillary an excellent bully pulpit for speaking on topics, issues and agendas of her own choosing, in contrast to any opportunities to speak at handsomely paid gigs for others’ agendas (aka special interest groups which could create unfortunate quotes that could be used by opponents).

Concurrently, Hillary has been getting numerous requests from universities across the United States, basically being offered to choose her spot in a special studies program in a university department or affiliated think tank, or as the occupant of a specially designed research chair, crafted to her liking. Politico’s Maggie Habberman argues, for example, that the “Advantages of an academic platform could be huge for someone considering a 2016 run”.

Although she hasn’t decided about any of this yet, once again, such a position or positions – assuming she picks one or more of these plums besides the foundation – would give her lots of freedom of action to focus on themes of her interest at her choosing, through yet another podium and megaphone. Hillary would have near total freedom to pick and choose her topics, on her timetable, even as she also shows up to speak on behalf of other political figures, who are formal candidates for other offices, at fundraisers. This, of course, simply makes her more visible, and racks up political support debts on the part of other politicians, particularly if they win in the mid-term election of 2014.

Add to all this the fact that there are already two biographical television series about Hillary’s life coming soon to a flat screen near you. As Politico reported the other day, “CNN is making a documentary on Hillary Clinton and the entertainment division of NBC is doing a miniseries on Clinton’s life, with Diane Lane playing Hillary,” and the Republican National Party chair, Reince Priebus, is already crying foul, claiming these are effectively below-the-radar efforts to punt a Clinton candidacy. Priebus “has therefore sworn that if CNN and NBC do not abandon their projects by Wednesday, he will ask the Republican National Committee to refuse to ‘partner with these networks in 2016 primary debates nor sanction debates they sponsor.’” If readers needed any further proof that the political operatives are already jockeying for position advantages in the 2016 race, this might be the smoking gun.

Unlike virtually any other politician, however, after four decades in the public eye, Hillary has virtually no need to do anything that would make her more identifiable to voters. Her problem – her challenge, really – is addressing the core issue any presidential candidate must confront in defining a campaign. She must pick one of three broad strategies (or possibly, a supple combination of all of them). She must either develop a juggernaut of a campaign structure that frightens away the competition as it soaks up all the available money, experts and other resources; develop a campaign firmly shaped around an issue or theme; or create a campaign the builds rock-solid support from a region or from a tight coalition of economic, ethnic or interest groups – or a gender.

There are pitfalls to any of these choices, of course. Picking the first option can make one vulnerable to a fresh candidate championing an issue that threatens to sweep away the carefully constructed apparatus of a campaign as the seemingly inevitable candidate suddenly is revealed to have no illuminating passion or to be somehow conflicted over an important issue dividing the nation (See 2008 Democrat Primaries). The mechanics may still win the nomination, but such can eventually lead to a party so splintered that the candidate loses the general election just as Hubert Humphrey did in 1968, with the Vietnam War raging. Alternatively, picking an issue renders a candidate vulnerable if the issue is superseded by other problems. Finally, building a candidacy around a limited pool of voters is an exercise in political purity, but lousy math. One can mobilize committed voters for primary wins (in part because only the politically active will vote in those elections), but it becomes exceedingly hard to win the general election, where capturing the vast uncommitted middle is the real road to victory. (See Tea Party and GOP.)

As far as Clinton’s opposition for the nomination is concerned, at this point at least, most pundits still insist that if she makes a determined effort to nail down the nomination, to build an effective organization, to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to capture the nomination, to stake out a few issues to own, and to mobilize supporters – women, minorities and natural geographic constituencies such as Illinois and New York – the nomination is all but hers.

Or as Kathleen Parker argued in the Washington Post the other day, “Whether one likes or dislikes Hillary, few dispute that she has matured in her public role. Her résumé can be topped by few and the symbolic power of electing a woman president – especially this woman – can’t be overestimated. Many doubtless shudder at the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the most powerful person in the world, but we’ve done worse. For what it’s worth, many in the Bush White House said privately they hoped Hillary would win because they felt she was better prepared to handle international challenges.” And that was back in 2008.

Her most logical opponent at this point, Vice President Joe Biden, is several years her senior and is often seen as too prone to verbal gaffes that can carry a real cost (although his ties to labour and other key interest groups in the party’s natural coalition might well be a better fit even than Hillary’s would be). “Good ole Joe” is deeply beloved by many in his party, but it has never been entirely clear he has passed that informal, intangible but very real presidential gravitas test. And now, in his early 70s, it would seem to many that it is unlikely he ever will.

But none of this presages a win in the general election, of course. And that is where Clinton’s policy and accomplishments track record comes into play. Perhaps the two most effective criticisms a Republican challenger could try to make – certainly seen from this point in the electoral cycle at least – are that Clinton is essentially going to run on the grounds that she is Hillary Clinton; or, alternatively, that her tenure as secretary of state was less than successful, or, more uncharitably still, an outright disaster.

The first playbook will essentially argue that throughout her long existence in the public eye, her primary accomplishments have been to advocate minor initiatives dealing with child health and welfare and the rest of her attention has been focused on consolidating her stature as the preeminent women’s candidate, as a woman. On the big issues – immigration reform, the evolving relationships with China and Russia, energy policy, dealing with the Middle East (Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Arab-Israeli negotiations, the blowback from the Arab Spring) – her positions were either thoroughly ambiguous, wrong-headed or simply unknowable, and therefore not thought through.

The other attack plan would be to pick apart her legacy as secretary of state and, point-by-point, refute any indications of success or advance planning on her part for a better, safer world. Instead, they will say, she was a wonderful administrative caretaker over at Foggy Bottom. That yes, she travelled a lot, but when it came right down to it, she was totally wrong on Egypt, wrong on Libya, wrong on Russia and Vladimir Putin and that silly “reset” button, dramatically wrong on Syria, and unclear on everything else. You can almost hear Newt Gingrich breathlessly practicing that litany right now. And over in the senate there would be Florida’s Marco Rubio assailing her on immigration from one side, while Texas Senator Ted Cruz castigates her from the other side as a big-spending socialist. In fact, in The Washington Post of all places, old-style, hard-edged liberal columnist Richard Cohen has essentially written the playbook for the first approach, while Jennifer Rubin, the in-house conservative columnist at the same paper, has outlined the brief for the other version of these attacks.

The likely opponents now would seem to include New Jersey governor Chris Christie (the Republican even Democrats can love, and the man some say delivered just enough votes from his embrace of Barack Obama over the devastation from Hurricane Sandy to guarantee Obama’s 2012 win); Kentucky senator Rand Paul (who brings a great deal of his father’s isolationist, “nativist” tendencies to the debate); senator Marco Rubio (the man presumed to have the best chance among the GOP to capture a magic number of Hispanic voters necessary to win the presidential election); former Florida governor Jeb Bush (the man who embodies an older-style Republican internationalism tinged with more conservative social attitudes, and who also speaks Spanish); and maybe another senator or two. But presumably 2016 will not be the clown show that prevailed in 2012 with the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Caine – and arguably Ron Paul as well – all battling it out with the eventual winner, Mitt Romney.

Against any of these likely challengers, Clinton would be quite likely to have assembled a treasure trove of funds, an army of volunteers and perhaps even Democratic Party agreement that they unite around one candidate, early, without the usual Democratic eye-gouging that has been the norm forever. But her best weapon, of course, will be Bill Clinton.

While some may roll their eyes at the thought of yet another Clinton occupation of the White House, there is simply no denying the Big Dawg is the preeminent campaigner and speechifier of the Boomers’ generation. And he owes Hillary BIG TIME for standing by him when he was caught out with a certain intern and a certain flexibility with his vocabulary. If you thought his speech at the convention and then his campaigning on behalf of Obama in 2012 was something for the record books, just you wait until he gets to do the same thing for Hillary in three years time.

Even if In Trade’s political futures market doesn’t guarantee it yet, or unless it eventually comes out that Hillary has run off to join an ashram in Tibet or come down with some kind of too-terrible illness, run, do not walk, to the nearest off-track betting shop and put down some real Wonga on Clinton in 2016. Tell ‘em, “Psst, Daily Maverick sent me”. DM

For more, read:

  • Hillary Clinton considering academic options, at Politico
  • Attention, Reince Priebus: Send in the clown cars, at Politico
  • Hillary Clinton’s legacy of mismanagement abroad (Jennifer Rubin’s column), in The Washington Post
  • Just being Hillary Clinton isn’t enough (Richard Cohen’s column), in The Washington Post
  • Hillary Clinton power in 2016 (Kathleen Parker’s column), in The Washington Post
  • Unease at Clinton Foundation Over Finances and Ambitions, at the New York Times
  • Political Scene: Evaluating Hillary Clinton, at the New Yorker
  • Hillary Was a Great Ambassador, Not a Great Secretary of State, at the New Yorker
  • The Clinton Legacy – How Will History Judge the Soft-Power Secretary of State?, at Foreign Affairs
  • An interview with Hillary Clinton, at the Economist
  • Marco Rubio’s Un-American Dream, at the New York Times

Photo: U.S.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya during a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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