If pundits rather than votes won elections, the 2016 US presidential election would be over already. Before she had even formally announced her candidacy the Democratic primary and the general election were, they said, hers to lose. Not only was her party’s nomination a done deal before the race had even begun, so too was the Presidency itself. The demographics, the data and the mega-rich donors were all stacked heavily in her favour and rendered her victory a matter of when not if. She is, they said confidently, inevitable. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the next (and first female) President of the United States of America.
But not so fast. Last Saturday, as Clinton officially launched her campaign with a set-piece speech in New York, the cracks were quickly beginning to show. Hillary is not inevitable. And she certainly shouldn’t be. She is, clearly, the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination with the most money and the most sophisticated nationwide campaign organisation. However, her chances of being elected President in 2016, assuming that she does in fact secure her party’s nomination, which in itself is not predestined, are not, contrary to media myth, unassailable.
Back in her days as Secretary of State, Clinton’s poll ratings were sky-high. As the nation’s top diplomat, she was able to steer clear of the murky, partisan waters of domestic politics and focus on representing all Americans, whether Democrats, Republicans or independents, abroad. With no other Democratic challengers apparently forthcoming, her path to the nomination looked clear – and with speculative head-to-head polls against potential Republican opponents giving her solid margins of victory, her path to the White House looked clear too. However, both these facts’ are no longer true.
Former Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley, former Governor of Rhode Island and one-time Republican Lincoln Chafee and avowed socialist and Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders have all declared themselves to be candidates in the Democratic primaries. All three are serious underdogs. American politics is so often dominated and dictated by money and Clinton’s campaign funds will vastly outweigh their totals combined. Nonetheless, on the battlefield of ideas, each has something to offer which could potentially destabilise an arrogant, complacent or sluggish Clinton campaign. Sanders’ unashamedly liberal, populist, anti-establishment pitch will resonate with many Americans and has already gained him a vibrant, dedicated, passionate and youthful following. Hillary, ever the corporatist, establishment, free market Democrat, will be vulnerable to challenge from the left. As a rich, powerful and well-connected woman, voters may conclude that she is hardly the right person to fundamentally reshape America’s elitist, unequal politics.
On the Republican side, there is a veritable smorgasbord of declared, undeclared and soon-to-be-declared candidates. While at the moment there is no clear frontrunner or favourite, names like Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush (yes, that family again) will likely come to the front of this densely crowded field as the primaries progress. In a country seemingly frustrated with eight years of a Democratic Presidency, if the Republicans pick a sane, somewhat centrist candidate, don’t rule them out. A recent CNN-ORC poll shows that Clinton’s favorability rating is lower now than at any point during the last 14 years. A Washington Post-ABC poll suggested that 52% of Americans believed her to be dishonest and untrustworthy; that in the space of a month her approval rating among Democrats had fallen by 9%; and that the proportion of independents expressing approval fell over the same period from 45% to 37%, with 51% now disapproving. Recent scandals – from accusations of bribes from foreign governments being funnelled through the Clinton Foundation to claims that she compromised her own communications security at the State Department then proceeded to cover-up and delete damaging emails – have fuelled these negative perceptions.
To many, the idea that Sanders could win the Democratic nomination is an utterly ridiculous, laughable prospect. And in many ways it is – not least because of the manner in which he has been cruelly ridiculed as a crazy old man and ludicrously demonised as some kind of raging Marxist. But stranger things have happened. We’ve heard all this talk about Hillary’s inevitability and invincibility before. Back in 2007, the punditocracy declared her to be the favourite. It was clear she wanted the job and it was assumed that the American people would give it to her – and that the Democrats wouldn’t dare to even contemplate standing in her way. It would be a seamless, effectively uncontested coronation. But then an obscure, unusually-named and inexperienced African American Senator from Hawaii audaciously announced his intention to run for President. He was immediately dismissed as a total no-hoper. And yet Barack Obama narrowly and spectacularly beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination and, as they say, the rest is history. If Hillary the Supposedly Inevitable could be beaten in 2007, she can be beaten again in 2015. That she was beaten by somebody so untested proves her weaknesses. Unlike Obama, she is neither a particularly accomplished campaigner nor an especially talented orator, both highly valuable skills which got Obama over the line in 2007, 2008 and 2012.
Furthermore, Hillary is not a fresh face. Her name recognition vastly outperforms that of her rivals and opponents from both parties – that’s really the only reason she has performed so well against them in early head-to-head polls – but this is both a blessing and a curse. Many Americans have already made up their minds about Hillary Clinton. People tend to love her or hate her. Committed Republicans tend to dislike her with a passion. Her crossover appeal to Republicans and independents might, therefore, be limited, despite her centrist domestic record and hawkish foreign policy stance. She comes with difficult historical and political baggage from both of the Presidents she supported and served. Her candidacy will, in many ways, be a referendum on the last two Democratic President's with whom she is so intimately linked.
She will be unable to fully escape the shadow of these two men, her husband Bill Clinton and her ex-boss Barack Obama. Everything she says and does, everything she promises and proscribes, will be compared with her own time as First Lady and Secretary of State and the Clinton and Obama Presidencies. She will be endlessly compared to them just as Jeb Bush will be endlessly compared to his father and brother. Because of her personal ties to both men, this is not unusual. But the dynamic will be heightened by the fact that she was an especially partisan First Lady – she famously said that the American people had acquired ‘two for the price of one’ when they first elected Bill, before spearheading ultimately unsuccessful efforts to pass healthcare legislation – and over a decade later was responsible for executing the foreign policy of another controversial, increasingly unpopular leader.
These inevitable comparisons will be a significant hindrance to her chances in 2016. Although Bill Clinton presided over a remarkable peacetime economic boom which greatly increased America’s wealth and created a budget surplus, he also continued the madness which Ronald Reagan had started by further deregulating the banking industry. The collapse which these imprudent reforms precipitated in 2008/09 and its devastating socioeconomic consequences are still with us today.
Similarly, Obama’s time in the Oval Office has also been a mixed bag. On the one hand, his embrace of Keynesian economics via a colossal government investment programme in everything from infrastructure to teachers to scientific research to renewable energy fuelled America’s relatively strong recovery from its worst recessionary crisis since the Great Depression. Moreover, Obamacare’s extension of affordable and high-quality healthcare has provided life-saving insurance to millions of impoverished, vulnerable, young and chronically-ill Americans who would otherwise have faced illness, disease and even death. Obama has, therefore, saved countless lives and livelihoods. Nonetheless, there have been great failures – income inequality has dramatically increased since 2009; Guantanamo Bay remains open for the business of indefinite, inhumane military detention without trial; Wall Street remains unrepentant and unreformed; the much-trumpeted ‘pivot to Asia’ has not materialised; unilateral drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere; whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning have been labelled ‘traitors’ and viciously pursued; and Washington D.C. remains more divided and gridlocked than when Obama promised to clean up Capitol Hill once and for all.
And so, Hillary will have to pull off a difficult high-wire act. She will have to balance not being seen to be running away from or to be to blame for the failures of Clinton and Obama. She is, undeniably, a well-qualified and experienced candidate and her story is a powerful one. The idea of making history again eight years on from electing the first African American to the highest office in the land by breaking what she called the ‘highest, hardest glass ceiling’ in her 2008 concession speech, will attract many Americans. But neither of these things – her experience and her gender – will be enough to win. Nor should it be.
Think Hillary is inevitable? Think again. She was in 2007 – and she lost.