Is America really ready to put another Clinton in the White House?
She hasn’t said she will stand yet, but Hillary Clinton is certainly in the frame. David Usborne considers her chances and the obstacles she will face
As whistle-stop tours go it will be fairly brief, but even so the coming days will be gruelling for Hillary Clinton. Her new memoir, Hard Choices, comes out on Tuesday and by this time next week she will have made appearances in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC to promote it – and on all the TV networks.
Ostensibly, the book is Mrs Clinton’s recollections from her four years as Secretary of State. She relates, for instance, giving the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a little badge in 2009 with the word “reset” in English and Russian, reflecting America’s desire to start over with the Kremlin. Unfortunately the Russian translation was wrong. “It was not the finest hour for American linguistic skills,” she writes.
As for Vladimir Putin, he is “thin-skinned and autocratic, resenting criticism and eventually cracking down on dissent and debate”.
Clearly, though, she is also laying the groundwork for a possible tilt at the Democratic nomination for President in 2016. Fans hoping she might have used the book to declare will be disappointed. “Will I run for president in 2016? The answer is, I haven’t decided yet,” she writes on page 595, according to CBS News which obtained an early copy.
The book is in part a chance to apply salve to those bits of her past, at least in foreign policy, that could do her damage. She indicates in stronger terms than ever before her regret at voting for a resolution authorising the Iraq war, for instance. And she is disdainful of the Republican Party’s endless inquiries into the ransacking of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. “There will never be perfect clarity on everything that happened,” she says.
She also starts the necessary but tricky process of differentiating herself from President Barack Obama. She says she tried in vain to persuade the president to give weapons to rebels fighting the Syrian dictatorship – she calls the Syrian conflict a “wicked problem” – and to end the decades-long US embargo on Cuba.
Most topical, though, are the pages about the efforts that began even when she was at the State Department to wrest the American soldier Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity. He was released on 31 May in exchange for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Usefully for Mrs Clinton now, she discusses how negatively such an exchange might be viewed. “Opening the door to negotiations with the Taliban would be hard to swallow for many Americans after so many years of war.”
Almost no one thinks Hillary Clinton won’t run. But should she? And are the Democrats wise to want her?
Mitt Romney stumbled trying to win his party’s nomination in 2008 (John McCain got it) yet he was persuaded to try again in 2012. He was nominated but was beaten in the November election. Is this a bit of history Mrs Clinton should learn from? If she didn’t have what it took in 2008 to break what she calls the “last glass ceiling” and become the first woman president, what makes her think she has it now? There is a younger alternative who could give it a go: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
How’s her health?
Mrs Clinton will be 69 if elected in November 2016, only a few months younger than Ronald Reagan was when he won in 1981. In late 2012 she was treated for a blood clot under the skull after taking a fall and suffering a concussion. Recently the Republican operative Karl Rove suggested she had brain damage. When People magazine published a cover photo of her in her garden last week holding on to something, internet rumours erupted that it was a walker. (It was a garden chair.) She says she is fine. If nothing else, her punishing book promotion schedule should serve to make that point.
Fundraising and recognition
Any presidential candidate has to be able to raise mountains of money. We are talking more than $1bn (£590m) for the general election alone. In this regard, Mrs Clinton is surely peerless, with a fat Rolodex of wealthy supporters – hailing from Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and beyond – all eager to see the Clinton name back on the White House door. As for whether or not voters will recognise her name on the ballot, we know the answer to that.
That 3am call
The famous ad run by Mrs Clinton in 2008 asked Democrats who they wanted answering the phone in a global crisis in the dead of night at the White House: Barack Obama or “someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military, someone tested”. If she was tested then, she is more than that now after four years as Secretary of State. Some past candidates have been accused of barely having left American soil; she is not in that category.
If there is one complaint you hear more often than any other it’s this: America has already had the experience of putting two men named Bush in the White House, and not all the memories are good. The Clintons have hogged the political stage on and off since 1992. Couldn’t the Democrats be a little more modern and find a fresh face? It could get worse if the Republicans end up nominating the former Florida governor Jeb Bush as their standard-bearer in 2016. A Clinton-versus-Bush race? Again? Really?
Too much of a record?
Mrs Clinton was the most involved first lady in history, for instance spearheading a first attempt at passing universal healthcare in 1993. She served a term and a half in the Senate, representing New York. And then she was Secretary of State. But that gives an opponent a huge canvas on which to attack her. Hillarycare failed. She voted for the Iraq War, and has accepted that the mess in Benghazi that left the US ambassador to Libya dead was ultimately her responsibility.
A Bill problem?
Some on the Republican side have already suggested that being the wife of a philandering husband should somehow count against her. When Monica Lewinsky finally spoke out about the indignities of what happened to her, in Vanity Fair earlier this year, it was said that Mrs Clinton or her backers had put her up to it. Better get the issue out of the way now. But don’t forget that voters mostly sympathised with the former first lady at the time. And as for Bill, he is more popular than ever.
No populist she
The liberal left of the Democratic Party is on the ascendancy. This is not natural Hillary territory. She is closely tied to the very banks on Wall Street that helped precipitate the recent financial crisis, notably Goldman Sachs, for whom she has given two paid speeches in the past year. Still, if she is nominated and her opponent is Jeb Bush, her problems will be lessened. His current main client is Barclays.
There is no statute of limitations on the scandals or so-called scandals that dogged the Clintons when Bill was boss. It may not be politically smart, but any opponent in the primaries or general election might be tempted to haul America back into the murk of the couple’s Whitewater property investments in Arkansas, to the firing of the White House travel staff by Hillary, the suicide of the deputy White House legal adviser (and close friend) Vincent Foster in 1993, and on and on and on. If they do she will presumably complain again of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”.
Her press problem
It is not unreasonable that Mrs Clinton should be wary of the press. But supporters worry that any effort to erect a firewall between her and reporters might easily backfire on her campaign, just as it did in 2008 on John McCain, who travelled very quickly from press-friendly to press-paranoid. Lanny Davis, a long-time adviser to the family, asks in the current New Yorker: “Can she and her people be more humble in dealing with the press? It’s a really good question. I don’t see how she can fundamentally change.”
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