Everyone is aware that Hillary Clinton is poised to run for the presidency in 2008. That’s no surprise. What might seem amazing is that she could actually win. The US midterm elections put the Democrats back in control of Congress, and thanks to Nancy Pelosi’s win as Speaker of the House (notably, Pelosi is a vocal critic of the Bush administration) it is clear that finally, female candidates can run for powerful posts in our slowly evolving political environment—and even win.
The prevailing political conditions seem to favor a Clinton run, though, in a paradoxical way, the Democratic victory in Congress might hurt her chances. As the weakened state of the Republicans augurs well for a Democratic president in 2008, a veritable flood of candidates has joined Clinton as the race begins. She begins her run with name recognition and plenty of monetary backing, yet she is far from a shoo-in.
In January 2007, President Bush will deliver his penultimate State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. Sitting on the dais behind him, in the chamber of the House of Representatives, right next to Vice President Cheney, will be the first woman Speaker of the House in US history. Pelosi’s position places her second in line for presidential succession: two heartbeats from the presidency, as it were. This means that of the four people in line to succeed the President, two are women. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is fourth, after the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Americans need to appreciate the miracle of the mini revolution that was wrought with the results of the 2006 midterm elections. Remember that for the first 130 years of America’s democratic experiment, women, in general, did not even have the right to vote. Considering the constant battles to afford full political equality to women (during the 80 years after the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution finally secured the franchise for women) this is indeed a remarkable moment. But are Americans now willing to do what other countries such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Norway have done long ago—select a woman to head the government?
The 2006 election demonstrates that female candidates are running, and winning, in greater numbers than ever before, in both legislative and executive positions. The Senate now has 16 women. All six incumbents who ran were re-elected, and two new female senators were elected. In the House of Representatives, 58 women were re-elected, 10 were newly elected, and three won woman vs. woman races. There will be at least 71 women in the new House, and perhaps more, depending upon the outcome of several undecided races. Women also continue to make gains in state elections. In 2006, six women were elected or re-elected as governors, bringing the total to nine at the top of a state government. About 1,500 women won election or re-election to state legislatures across the US, and women have been increasingly successful in winning election to other state executive posts, such as Lieutenant Governor or State Attorney. (For information on these, and other, women’s election results see “50-50 by 2020: Equal representation in Government”.)
And of course as mentioned the Democrats now have control of Congress, which will certainly provide a platform to commence a solid presidential run. But the initial problem will be for Clinton to smoothly combine being a Senator with being a presidential candidate. New York’s voters, who re-elected her with 67 percent of the vote, are pleased with her abilities as a Senator, and she can point to a record of achievement. As Andrew Sullivan noted earlier this year, in a far from laudatory piece on Clinton, she is “a very shrewd senator, diligently tending to her constituents especially in conservative upstate New York …” (TimesOnLine, 14 May 2006).
An assessment of Clinton’s presidential chances needs to recognize that she will have to overcome some flaws in her candidacy. Perhaps her major weakness is her polarizing character. Few are moderate in their opinions of the Senator, and there is a profound love-hate relationship that resonates amongst voters. A cursory internet search will produce numerous anti-Clinton sites, one more hostile than the next. Why do people feel such loathing for Clinton? Mostly because she is viewed by many as a liberal extremist with a self-serving political agenda. But the prevailing reason is simply that she’s Hillary. As conservative pundit Robert Novak noted on the 2 June 2005 edition of CNN’s Crossfire, “I don’t bash Hillary because I think she’s weak. I don’t bash her because I think she is strong. I bash her because I like to.”
And of those who may not hate her, many still think of her as overtly liberal. In a recent Rasmussen reports poll, of those questioned, 47 percent labeled her liberal, while 34 percent saw her as a moderate. Though there is a sizable base of middle ground voters which is apprehensive about Clinton, her favorability numbers are holding, with a recent positive increase. “Currently 44% report a favorable opinion of Clinton, up six points from the previous survey. The number with an unfavorable opinion is down by five to 40% …” (Hillary Meter Rasmussen Reports 6 November 2006). She will have to work hard to turn the fence sitters in her favor, though she most likely will not alter the views of those who agree with Novak.
There is also the fact of her gender. This is an obstacle due to the perception that a female presidential candidate may not be tough enough to handle the pressure-packed presidential office. That said, this is an attitude, along with the Novak view, that Clinton is familiar with. Along with her capabilities as a Senator, her strongest asset may be the strength and resilience that she has displayed during her political career. She withstood the deluge of opposition when she spearheaded her husband’s healthcare proposals in 1993. The proposals ultimately failed, but she demonstrated that she could take the political heat. Clinton stood up for women’s rights at the 1995 Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing, when politicians at home thought she should guard against offending the Chinese government (which was furious that she forcefully pushed for women’s rights around the world, and especially in China). She endured the humiliation of the ordeal in 1998 and 1999 stemming from her husband’s adultery, and his subsequent impeachment. She moved confidently and successfully from being First Lady, and wronged wife, into the Senate, when some thought she should stay home and mend her marriage. And recently, Clinton demonstrated that she is willing to take a stand on the Iraq war – a stand that goes against the beliefs of some of her most fervent liberal supporters. She has been a strong critic of the war and the Bush administration’s conduct. Yet, this past June, at the liberal “Take Back America Conference”, Clinton was booed when she suggested that “I do not think it is a smart strategy … for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment … Nor do I think it is a smart strategy to set a certain date.” (About Liberal Politics, 13 June 2006).
Former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani
No one should underestimate the challenges Clinton faces in a presidential run. Nor should anyone underestimate her capacity to meet those challenges. And, as she observes the rapidly crowding presidential field around her (in both parties) there isn’t any reason why she should take a backseat to any of the early leaders. On the Republican side stands former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani. He is moderate, and popular, but, before 9/11 no one considered him presidential material. One wonders how far his 9/11 aura can carry him. There is also Massachusetts’ Governor Mitt Romney, though he is not well known outside his home state. He seems intent on proving that, although he is the governor of one of the nation’s most liberal states, he is in lock step with the Republican Party’s conservative base.
Arizona Senator John McCain
At this point, Arizona Senator John McCain looks to be the Republican front runner. McCain is popular and he can certainly raise large amounts of money and popular support. But he, too, is courting the Republican conservatives, and, in a move seen by some as courageous, foolish, or just plain crazy, he has proposed sending roughly 20,000 additional troops to Iraq. In fact, McCain is, “Nearly alone among major political figures in calling for an increase in American forces in Iraq … Only one in seven Americans agrees with Mr. McCain that the United States should send more soldiers and Marines … (some analysts say) Mr. McCain was risking his reputation as a realist and someone who knows when to fold a losing hand by sticking obstinately to his current position.” (The New York Times, 14 November 2006).
North Carolina Senator, John Edwards
Ironically, Clinton’s greatest political opposition may come from her Senate colleagues. John Kerry of Massachusetts wants to assuage his 2004 defeat, and make amends for running a terrible campaign; (despite his “joke” about which young people go to Iraq, the dumb ones, shortly before the 2006 election demonstrated that his political skills have deteriorated over the last two years). Kerry’s Vice Presidential running mate, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, is dynamic and personable. But can he do as presidential candidate what he couldn’t as vice presidential candidate? That is, translate his charm and affability into a Democratic victory? There’s no reason to assume that he can. Then there is Joseph Biden, Jr., of Delaware, who is about to assume the Chairmanship of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This may be enough to increase his stature on the national stage, but he has his own past scandals (involving political plagiarism) which will haunt his campaign.
Illinois Senator, Barack Obama
Finally, there is the young and charismatic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. He is an eloquent speaker, a person of undoubted ability, and one who possesses strong anti-war credentials. But in 2008, he will only be nearing the end of his first Senate term, and he lacks experience.
It was a united Democratic party which drove the Dems’ 2006 return to power in the Congress. And if the recent triumph can help avoid fractures within the party, there is no reason that the Dems cannot unite behind a single candidate for the 2008 election. And Clinton could certainly be that candidate. Does she stir strong emotions and fervent opposition? Yes, but Americans should not forget that the Bush administration has done much the same over the past six years. I expect that the 2008 campaign will be every bit as vicious as the 2004 campaign was; perhaps even more so with Clinton as the Democratic candidate. But let her political resume speak for itself, and let’s see if she can make history as the nation’s next president.