It is not exactly surprising, but Hillary Clinton has confirmed what everyone already knew: she wants to be president of the United States. She has been focused on this ambition since she stood by her husband’s side during his time in the White House, her every move since then carefully calculated to propel her to the post. Hence the announcement on Twitter, no doubt to counter fears that she is ill-suited to run her nation in this disruptive digital age.
At least it is now official that she is having her second, and almost certainly final, shot at becoming America’s first female president, something long overdue. With her 68th birthday later this year, she would also be the second-oldest president after Ronald Reagan. Yet, however historic, and however welcome to see a woman in the Oval Office, it is depressing to see the Democrats lining up to crown her.
She stands in sharp contrast to other women who shattered glass ceilings in Western democracies – such as Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. They transformed nations after brave battles against the system, while she is almost their mirror image: the wife of an ex-president who has benefited from his over-inflated reputation to exploit their formidable establishment machine. At a time of public contempt for the political classes, she symbolises much that is wrong with Washington.
Take the money that so corrupts politics in America and corrodes its constitution. The last White House race saw candidates spend more than $2bn – which is around 30 times the total cost of Britain’s last general election. US politics has become a plaything of the super-rich, manipulated by the wealthy and corporations for their own interests. Instead of challenging this, Clinton has amassed a war chest so large that Gary Hart, another one-time Democrat front-runner, said it “ought to frighten every American”.
As Hart said in an impassioned call for new leaders, if you need a billion dollars to run for president then no wonder US politics is becoming dynastic. He is right; it is shocking that a nation of 320 million people could be about to be offered a choice between a second Clinton and a third Bush. Barack Obama alone shattered this family duopoly over the past quarter century – and only by taking on his party establishment and stopping Clinton’s last tilt at the presidency with smart grass-roots campaigning and glorious oratory.
Clinton sought to stop him by stooping into the gutter. Her chairman pointed to Obama’s drug use, her team suggested he was a Muslim, even her husband was accused of playing the race card in his embittered interventions. Samantha Power, then a campaign adviser and now UN ambassador, concluded that Hillary was “a monster”, adding: “The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.” While far from unique – the Clinton camp itself suffered endless smears while in office – such dirty tricks leave voters dismayed.
Clinton’s candidacy feels closer to a coronation, with sky-high support among Democrats and party bigwigs and a sense almost of entitlement. The conventional wisdom has declared her unbeatable for the party’s nomination. She has worked hard to heat up her chilly public image, with toe-curling talk of how becoming a grandmother made her think about the future of all children and see the world in new ways. Yet she remains a plodding public speaker and a polarising figure.
The former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos once wrote that whenever she appeared before focus groups, “the line on the screen dropped like a downhill ski run”. Her time as First Lady was scarred by political setbacks such as bungled health care reform and personal humiliations caused by her philandering husband. But she bounced back bravely, behaving with immense dignity and fortitude before going on to win a Senate seat against expectations.
Yet for all her fame, it remains hard to see what she really stands for in domestic terms. She left little legislative trace during her time in the Senate. More recently, she has barely spoken on economic matters while her party has moved to the left – and when she has said something, it shifted depending on the audience. She is “the most opaque person you’ll ever meet in your life”, said one Democrat senator – although adding that he would be, too, after her extraordinary life.
The picture is less fuzzy on foreign policy – but this does not make her a more promising president. She says, rather risibly, that she is neither realist nor idealist but an “idealistic realist”. Yet her track record reveals a hawk, from supporting war in Iraq as a senator to pushing for stronger action in Afghanistan as secretary of state; she still believes Obama should have become more involved in the Syrian rebellion, which would only have sucked the nation deeper into the quagmire. One exception was her attempt to “reset” relations with Russia, a naive policy failure she tried to mask by comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler after last year’s invasion of Ukraine.
Clinton offers a candidacy laden with symbolism. She is a determined character, a doughty fighter and undeniably impressive woman. But is she really the best Democrat candidate, given her lack of authenticity, her caution, her careful triangulation, her campaigning record and her foreign policy hawkishness, not to mention her age and health concerns? Her party should be looking forward, not back to a comfort-blanket candidate from the past. The Republicans, for all their faults, at least seem set for a serious struggle that will see some critical issues debated and perhaps define their future. America has, after all, always preferred democracy to coronations.
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