President Obama gave a major foreign-policy address to the UN on Tuesday, and Ted Cruz held the Senate hostage with his symbolic non-filibuster. But the week really belonged to Hillary Clinton.
If this week proved anything, it’s that her presidential candidacy is pretty much inevitable, not only because of who she is and what she has done over the past decade, but also because of its historic import. After years of controversy and endless jibes about her hair, clothing, and manner, she has succeeded in becoming a transformational, touchstone figure not only in politics but American culture.
The annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, timed to coincide with the UN General Assembly’s opening session, was held in New York this week; after his UN speech, Obama stopped by the convocation to explain the Obamacare rollout in a conversation with Bill Clinton, and the former secretary of state introduced them. The CGI attracted even more important international political and business leaders than the UN, and the Clintons are on a first-name basis with all of them.
Hillary Clinton, who turned out to be the star of the CGI event, outshone both the past and present occupants of the Oval Office. In her remarks she said she plans to spend the next year focusing on empowering women by assessing and fostering global equality. As the world’s most visible and well-known icon of women’s achievement she is not only poised for the job but a symbol of what remains to be done. Clinton, who lists one of her accomplishments on her Twitter account as “glass ceiling cracker,” tweeted in July: “Seneca Falls, 165 years ago today, began a movement that remains the unfinished business of the 21st century.” The not-so-subtle message: That unfinished business is electing a woman to the White House -- finally.
The two sides of the Clinton legacy, and the challenges she might face in a presidential run, are exemplified by two magazine cover stories out this week. Clinton gave her first major interview since stepping down as secretary of state to New York, which resulted in a glowing 3,000-word cover profile. Meanwhile, The New Republic published an article about Doug Band, Bill Clinton’s right-hand man since leaving the White House, which alleged Band had engaged in self-serving, unsavory behavior in promoting his own business interests using contacts he cultivated through the former president.
The TNR article, along with frequent Maureen Dowd columns, focus on the drama of the Clintons – money, sex, and power. Liberals as well as conservatives love to fret and fume about this and the dueling cover stories are another reminder that with the Clintons you get not only star quality but also a touch of sleaze.
But what the Clinton critics just don’t seem to get is that the drama doesn’t really matter anymore. Maybe the media hasn’t gotten over it. But the American people, outside of the diehard Clinton haters, have. Through talking with voters around the country, I’ve found most Americans don’t really care about the Clintons’ financial dealings. They think that’s pretty much politics as usual, and that most politicians engage in some variation. What Americans care about is who can get things done for them and the country -- and who, to borrow a phrase, feels their pain.
The Clintons score on both counts. Most Americans, especially those in the middle class, remember the Clinton years as the last time they really felt good about their lives and their futures. Exhibit A is Bill Clinton’s Democratic National Convention speech – the most successful of any given during the 2012 campaign. It moved the needle for Obama and made the case for his reelection in a way he couldn’t seem to make for himself, a fact reflected in polling after both speeches.
When I was traveling the country and interviewing voters for my book The Swing Vote I asked everyone I talked with who their favorite presidents were. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were mentioned most often. When I would press them about impeachment, Monica Lewinsky, etc., they would shrug their shoulders and say they didn’t care about that stuff.
Now Hillary’s even more popular than her husband. Polls taken earlier this year revealed that she had the highest approval rating of any Democrat in the country and was leading all likely 2016 Democratic and Republican candidates by a large margin, though her numbers have slipped a bit. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the only Republican over whom Clinton held just a narrow lead but he would struggle in a Tea Party-dominated GOP nominating process. According to Public Policy Polling, Christie is more popular with Democrats than Republicans.
That’s why a lot of Republicans are privately terrified of a Clinton candidacy. They know there are plenty of GOP women (not to mention independents) who would probably be thrilled to be able to cast a ballot for a woman president. Women represent the largest demographic in the nation and constitute more than 50 percent of the voters. Carrying that bloc in swing states would mean winning the election. And even without a woman on the ballot, Republicans have a serious gender gap in presidential elections.
As secretary of state, Clinton put her head down, worked hard, and subsumed her ego to the greater good and the man in charge. Being a team player is something with which most women are very familiar. Her tenure and management at Foggy Bottom has been widely praised as effective and (mostly) drama free.
There are few women over 40 who haven’t had the experience of being passed over professionally by a man with a thinner resume who was less experienced and less qualified. Whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or independents, most women will be able to relate to that. What’s impressive is the degree to which younger women also see Clinton as a role model. In 2008 I was on the floor of the Democratic National Convention standing next to a college student from the New Hampshire delegation who had tears in her eyes during Clinton’s speech.
In her New York interview, Clinton said it’s too early and not good for the country to be fixated on the 2016 election and who is going to run because there are too many important things to work on now. I couldn’t agree more. But the potential for a Clinton candidacy is more than fodder for political junkies and the media. It’s an important symbol for all women.
Hillary Clinton has proven many of her critics wrong: She is likeable enough. In 2008 the idea that her nomination was inevitable looked like arrogance. Now it looks like justice.