James D. Boys – Hillary Clinton: Slouching towards success?

This is a guest post by James D. Boys from Richmond University, London

After a lifetime in politics, Hillary Clinton finds herself at the threshold of greatness. The White House is tantalisingly close, yet the American people remain uncertain what to make of her. The 2016 campaign will either result in Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president of the United States, or it will undoubtedly mark the end of her political career. Though she is far ahead in the delegate count, she has yet to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, despite the smallest, weakest field of challengers the Party may have ever known. Until she secures the nomination, she cannot turn her energies to defeating her Republican opponent in the general election. To date, the 2016 primary season has demonstrated Hillary Clinton’s continuing struggle to overcome a series of formidable obstacles that have long-plagued her time in public life.

Her steadfast determination to appear tough and resilient has ensured that she remains an enigma, removed from the lives of the American electorate. Little, it seems, has been as important to Hillary Clinton as portraying a sense of control, either real or imagined throughout the course of her life. All things considered, this is perhaps not surprising. Raised by a cold and distant father, and married to the world’s most famous unfaithful husband, it is little wonder that Hillary Clinton appears to have created a seemingly perfect public persona that few can penetrate. In an era in which the American electorate has routinely demonstrated a propensity to elect presidents they would choose to share a beer with, however, her struggle to project personal warmth is a serious impediment to her election.

A fundamental challenge also exists in regard to Hillary Clinton’s liberal credentials. For many in her party, the New Democrat policies that she and her husband adopted in the 1990s was as unpopular as the New Labour project was with socialists in the UK; it felt like a betrayal of the party principles in a (successful) bid to gain power. Having been out of power for 12 years in 1992, the Democratic Party was inclined to accept such an approach. In 2016, having been in power for the last 8 years, this is no longer the case and explains, in part, why many members of the Democratic Party hanker after a candidate further to the left of the political spectrum. The self-described socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who no one expected to be any serious threat to Hillary Clinton, has defeated her in key battleground states and has repeatedly drawn tens of thousands to rallies across the country as he advocates an approach very different from that being offered by the Clinton campaign. Although he is now mathematically incapable of winning the nomination, his remarkable efforts have drawn Hillary Clinton to the left of the political spectrum in order to gain her party’s nomination, which will force her to reposition herself once again for the general election in the autumn.

Once she secures the Democratic Party’s nomination, can she win the presidency? A key determining factor will be Hillary Clinton’s continuing capacity to adapt and change. In 2008 she was determined to run on the basis of being the best-qualified candidate and was adamant that gender play no part in her campaign.  ‘I am not running as a woman,’ she told supporters at the Iowa State Fair in July 2007, ‘I am running because I believe I am the best-qualified and experienced person.’ This was perfectly encapsulated in her campaign advert that asked who Americans wanted to answer an emergency call at 3am. In seeking to pass the commander-in-chief test, however, Hillary Clinton appeared to be content to jettison her femininity and unique appeal to 51% of Americans. It was clear that her campaign took far too long to recognise that it had missed an opportunity to make Hillary Clinton’s candidacy about more than her, and to position it as an historic chance to break the gender lock on the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton appears far more content to utilise the gender issue if it will help secure victory in 2016, insisting that whatever her age, she would be ‘the youngest woman president in the history of the United Sates.’

Hillary Clinton has successfully maximised the financial opportunities that have accompanied her celebrity and political power in the United States. However, her highly publicised lecture fees and book royalties have elevated her income and personal net worth into the stratosphere, beyond the wildest imagination of most Americans. Her wealth is compounded by the amount of time she has spent in the public arena. When Bill Clinton first appeared on the national stage in 1992 he was relatively unknown and could introduce himself to the American public, to whom he was a virtual blank canvas. In the subsequent quarter century, however, the Clintons have rarely been out of the American eye, complicating efforts to present a ‘new’ Hillary Clinton to voters in 2016. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been omnipresent since 1992, through 8 years of her husband’s administration, 8 years in the Senate, a presidential campaign in 2008 and 4 high profile years as Secretary of State. First time voters in 2016 will have never known an American political landscape that didn’t include Hillary Clinton in one role or another, as she has become part of the establishment. Such a situation presents a challenge to her campaign, eager to portray her as a progressive candidate for change.

If elected in November 2016, Hillary would be 69 when she takes the oath of office in January 2017, making her America’s second oldest president; only Ronald Reagan will have been older. The Baby Boomer generation that Hillary Clinton represents is now retiring as the Millennial Generation comes to the fore. The fact that Bernie Sanders has managed to tap into the frustrations of the youth vote is an indication of Hillary Clinton’s status as a member of the establishment, rather than of a reform movement. The experience that she has gained since she last ran has actually proven to be a handicap for her as she seeks to project a readiness to lead, with a vitality that connects her to a youthful demographic. It is a circle she has thus far failed to square.

For all of the talk about personality, politics and policy, however, the presidential election is all about electoral mathematics. All considerations must be geared towards securing the 270 Electoral College votes that will secure the White House. Any electoral calculations, therefore, must address the state-by-state approach that the United States adopts on Election Day, for there is no national poll, but rather 50 individual polls that will provide a victor. The popular vote would be nice, but it is the Electoral College that will decide the election, as Al Gore discovered in 2000.

The Republicans have only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since 1988, ensuring that the Democrats have secured the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 elections and won 5 of the last 7 presidential contests. The national demographics appear to point to a Democratic victory irrespective of the party candidate, however, with Hillary Clinton’s unique appeal, such a result appears all the more likely. The route to electoral victory will need to ensure that Hillary Clinton retains the overwhelming ethnic minority support that secured Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House and build upon the large female vote that she secured in the 2008 primaries, but which Obama failed to secure in 2012. Such a combination of Latinos, African Americans and women, as well as the usual percentage of white men who would be expected to vote Democrat, should be sufficient to capture the White House in 2016 and propel Hillary Clinton into the history books as the first female president of the United States.

Dr James D. Boys is an Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University, London and is the author of Clinton’s Grand Strategy (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) and Hillary Rising (Biteback, 2016). He maintains a website at www.jamesdboys.com and tweets at @jamesdboys

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