Hillary Clinton's Remarkable Comeback

Her journey to the Democratic nomination is one of the most improbable political turnarounds of recent years.

Julio Cortez / AP

Hillary Clinton has now secured the Democratic nomination for president. Because she was the front-runner, because she represents the establishment, because she has been around forever, we forget how remarkable a story that is.

I’m not talking about her gender. In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.

Many forget how devastating Clinton’s 2008 loss was. Over the course of the campaign, her party’s most powerful leaders—people she had worked with for decades—betrayed her. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought out Barack Obama and secretly urged him to challenge her. Former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who according to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, considered Clinton an “icy prima donna,” did as well. Chuck Schumer publicly endorsed Clinton; as her fellow senator from New York, he had to. But he also privately urged Obama to run. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, an old ally from Clinton’s health-care fight, endorsed Obama and said he was doing it for his kids.

Ted Kennedy endorsed Obama publicly, despite being repeatedly begged not to by Bill Clinton. So did Representative Lois Capps, even though Bill had campaigned for her, spoken at her late husband’s funeral, and employed her daughter at the White House. Bill had also employed former Energy Secretary and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson. Nonetheless, Richardson—who ran himself in 2008—made a deal to send his supporters to Obama if he failed to meet the delegate threshold at individual Iowa caucus sites. He did so, according to Heilemann and Halperin, despite having promised the Clintons he would not. James Carville dubbed him “Judas.”

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Civil-rights legend John Lewis endorsed Clinton and then rescinded his endorsement to support Obama. Claire McCaskill betrayed the Clintons twice. They had campaigned hard for McCaskill when she sought a Missouri Senate seat in 2006. Then, that fall, she publicly declared that “I don’t want my daughter near” Bill. McCaskill assuaged the Clintons’ fury with an emotional apology to Bill. Then, in January 2008, she became the first female senator to endorse Obama.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that Hillary Clinton emerged from her 2008 defeat to become the front-runner in 2016. But at the time, it wasn’t obvious at all. Once a generational succession takes place in presidential politics, as happened when Obama beat Clinton, the older generation generally fades away. “Are the lights finally going out on the Clinton era?” asked The Guardian after Clinton conceded defeat. Gawker declared, “The Clinton era has ended.” Noting that Ted Kennedy, after losing to Jimmy Carter in 1980, committed himself to the Senate and never sought the presidency again, The Washington Post in May 2008 reported, “Many Democrats are now pointing to the Kennedy model as a path for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.” When Clinton accepted the job as Obama’s secretary of state, a former aide told The New York Times: “There’s a very small chance that she could run again. You’re not going to be the president, so you want to make sure your next few years, which may be your last in public life, really make a mark.”

Clinton herself said much the same thing. In October 2008, she told Fox News that the chances of her running for president again were “probably close to zero.” In October 2009, asked by NBC’s Ann Curry whether she would seek the White House again, Clinton said no three times. “I am not in any way interested in or pursuing anything in elective office,” she told Fox News again in November 2010. “No, no” she responded in October 2011 when NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked if she would run again. As late as December 2012, she told ABC’s Barbara Walters, “I really don’t believe that that’s something I will do again.”

We may never know exactly when Clinton decided to take another shot. But in so doing, despite her advanced age and despite the humiliation of her 2008 defeat, she displayed a resilience surpassed only by Nixon. It’s a quality she has had all along. In his biography, A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein noted that when Hillary, then 14 years old, was being bullied by a bigger girl at school, her mother told her to punch her tormenter. “There’s no room in this house,” she declared, “for cowards.” Elizabeth Drew wrote that after Bill Clinton’s disastrous 1988 nominating speech for Michael Dukakis, Hillary “literally picked him up, got him out of bed and made him face people.” And in March 2008, when Hillary won the Ohio primary despite being far behind Obama in the delegate count, she dedicated her victory to “everyone here in Ohio and across America, who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up. This one is for you.”

Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton. And none has responded with more tenacity and grit. Trump talks endlessly about strength. Clinton embodies it.