Chelsea Clinton Grows Up

Her campaign-trail dig at Bernie Sanders drew fire from Americans unwilling to surrender their memories of the First Daughter.

John Minchillo / AP

What on earth were the Clintons thinking? This question has been plaguing political watchers ever since Chelsea Clinton, in her first solo campaign outing for her mom last week, threw a punch at Bernie Sanders. Specifically, Chelsea accused the Vermont senator of pushing a health-care agenda that would “dismantle” Obamacare and Medicare. The assault was misleading, to be sure. (Given his druthers, Bernie would implement a comprehensive single-payer system.) But it was the messenger more than the message that rocked people’s world.

Conservative websites gleefully denounced Chelsea the “attack dog.” Democrats, meanwhile, wrung their hands over why she of all people would be dispatched to do this kind of wet work. (As strategist Brad Bannon told The Hill, “This makes Chelsea just another political player in the arena, and if I was Chelsea, that’s not where I’d want to be.”) And a media bored to sobs with the Democratic primary leapt on the episode like ducks on a June bug. Commentators mused endlessly about why the Clinton camp had taken this route and what it meant. (Consensus: nothing good.) Bernie Sanders was repeatedly invited to respond. Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin might have sounded a smidge melodramatic when he asserted, “I have covered the Clintons since 1991. It takes a lot to surprise me, and I am stunned watching Chelsea Clinton go on the attack. Stunned. Never seen anything like it.” But that’s only if you missed Mark Shields’s proclamation on PBS: “The Clinton campaign this week, in perhaps the stupidest act of the entire year, took the one person who is a character witness, who’s a privileged observer of Hillary Clinton, who can testify about Hillary Clinton as human being ... Chelsea Clinton, and turned her into a political hack. I mean it was just absolutely reckless and stupid.”

Team Hillary attempted damage control. The morning after Chelsea’s remarks, spokesman Brian Fallon assured reporters that the attack had not been ordered up by the campaign and that Chelsea was simply a fiercely devoted daughter who had gone rogue. But nobody was buying it, and Hillary wound up playing defense on multiple shows. “So no regrets about using Chelsea that way?” CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed the secretary.

Ouch. From all the ruckus, you’d think Chelsea had gone the full Lee Atwater and accused Sanders of being a drug-peddling, neo-fascist pedophile.

Then again, of course Chelsea’s dabbling in even low-level campaign combat was going to result in a collective seizure. Not because the offspring of big-name pols are forbidden from engaging in the rough stuff per se. Just last cycle, Beau Biden whacked Paul Ryan on behalf of his vice presidential father, and even the super-sunny Romney boys got saucy. Remember how cute it was when Tagg admitted the urge to leap from his seat and “take a swing” at President Obama at the second debate?

But Chelsea? Such ungraciousness—and such disingenuousness—isn’t expected from Bill and Hillary’s only child. It cuts against not only her meticulously tended good-girl persona but also the deeply rooted mythology of Chelsea as the sweet, loyal, vulnerable humanizer of her ambitious, inscrutable parents. (For some, Clinton fille will forever be the sad-eyed teen binding Mom and Dad together during the summer of Lewinsky.)

For all her parents’ flaws, Chelsea is typically regarded as above reproach—perhaps all the more so for her parents’ flaws. Many a piece has been written portraying her as the best parts of Hillary and of Bill, a triumph of natural selection if you will. Time and again, observers have marveled at Chelsea’s poise in the political arena, her steadying effect on her parents, her attempts to bring order to her dad’s notoriously unfocused foundation/legacy. She is praised most loudly on those occasions when she bursts forth with a warm-and-fuzzy tribute to her mother or, better still, her grandmother.

Now and again, her patient handling of Clinton haters wows even the conservative opposition. In October, for instance, some jackass confronted Chelsea at an Austin signing for her children’s book with crass questions about whether Webb Hubbell was her real father and whether Bill Clinton sexually targets teenage girls. Chelsea, smile unwavering, gently deflected the provocations, winning approving nods for her “grace” and “cool” from the likes of Sean Hannity, the Blaze, and the Daily Caller.

Chelsea Clinton, the ultimate Good Child. While the role is in many ways charming, it is also, by definition, infantilizing. This is, after all, a 35-year-old woman with a family, and presumably ambitions, of her own. At what point is Chelsea going to be recognized for something other than how she makes people feel about her high-wattage parents?

This is clearly a question Chelsea has grappled with herself over the years. It has been noted that, for college, she opted to go to Stanford, at the far edge of the continent, and immerse herself in the subculture of tech rather than politics. After grad school at Oxford, she tried on a variety of non-political jobs—consulting, finance—before doing a second stint in grad school. She even flirted with a career in journalism (which must have given her media-hating mother such a migraine). But after that flurry of activity, where did she land? Neck-deep in the family business, running her father’s foundation and immersing herself in her mother’s presidential dreams.

Such choices have not been made without ambivalence. “It is frustrating, because who wants to grow up and follow their parents?” Chelsea told Fast Company in 2014. “I’ve tried really hard to care about things that were very different from my parents.”

But the Clinton gravitational pull is strong. And, her many talents notwithstanding, there is arguably no job for which Chelsea is more qualified—or, for now, more needed—than professional daughter.

But woe be unto her mom’s campaign if she behaves like your typical political veteran and picks any more fights.