Thursday, April 16, 2015

The challenges for Clinton

ON SUNDAY, putting an end to the biggest open secret in American politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton — are we back to using the middle name again? — announced the start of her 2016 campaign for the White House, her second bid for the presidency. “I’m running for president,” she said in a brief announcement video. “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote — because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

With the announcement, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state instantly moved to the top of the leaderboard of Democratic prospects for the White House, a lofty perch so far before the election.

Clinton hit the ground running, following her announcement with an almost immediate departure for the state of Iowa, part of a tour (New Hampshire will be next) meant to reconnect her with long-term loyal Democrats and introduce her to younger voters who know more about her than the guy she’s married to. You know, that president dude.

The thrust of her campaign — enhancing the economic fortunes of millions of middle-class Americans struggling not to fall out of the middle class — will give her a chance to break down the lingering sense of Clinton as elitist, imperious and a bought-and-sold politician whose officialist past makes her, for many Americans, as much problem as solution.

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There are challenges for Clinton right outta the gate:

In a political culture enamored of the new, and almost 19 months before the 2016 election, Clinton has to keep her persona and her message fresh and inviting. Her public persona, of course, precedes her by years; the message she brings to the campaign and how well it resonates with voters remains to be seen.

It’ll be important for her to stake out philosophical territory that’s hers alone, to come up with policy prescriptions that aren’t cookie-cuttered or patchworked from other candidates.

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And Clinton has to stay fully engaged in a race that, in real terms, hasn’t even begun, at least on the Democratic side. The expected parade of potential Democratic rivals for the nomination hasn’t even started, since her possible fellow contenders have been waiting for Clinton to make her move.

Now that she’s officially in, she’ll soon be at the mercy of a ravenous news cycle obsessed with the Very Latest Thing. Sooner or later, that will include challengers on her side of the aisle. Some will be more ready for prime-time than others, some won’t be ready at all. Regardless, it’s her job to stay hungry and on message, and to keep the country the same way for her. Which leads to another challenge.

Clinton has to resist the huge temptation to portray herself and her campaign in a light of anything close to inevitability, a mindset that can infect the larger, more well-capitalized venture. This issue crippled her in 2008. By accident or by design, her '08 bid for the Oval Office was hampered by a persistent sense that she thought she was the bell cow, the only Democratic candidate in the race with viability (or the only one worth paying attention to).

A little-known senator named Barack Obama disabused her of that nation, and fast. It was a mistake she’d be well-advised not to repeat.

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THE COMING campaign will be the last best chance for Clinton to fully establish herself as a leader, defining her brand of statecraft permanently in the American experience.

The milestone of gender that her campaign, and possibly her presidency, represents both works for and against her. There’s no question that our national politics would be better informed — more intuitive, less historically reflexive, presumably more enlightened by nuance and negotiation — with a feminine perspective in the Oval Office. In this, a Hillary Clinton presidency would in and of itself be a welcome departure from the past.

But there are already many in the Hillary camp who view her possible ascension to the White House in the context of an absolute timetable. You’ve heard their rallying cry: “It’s time for a woman to be president!”

Yes and no. It was time for a woman to be president in 2008. After many hard lessons on the trail, Clinton’s campaign from that year had to confront political realities — the same realities she has to face down again: 2008 was, and 2016 will be, prime time — the perfect time — for the right woman to be president.

Clinton’s public biography precedes her handsomely. But it's an open question whether Clinton is embraced by voters hungry for results from a federal government passionate about intransigence — especially when, for millions of Americans, Clinton, a master of triangulation, represents that government. There’s at least one other person on the political horizon whose bona fides suggest there could be more than one right woman for the job.

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Elizabeth Warren, the junior Democratic senator from Massachusetts whose populist economic message has galvanized Americans across the country, has put Clinton on notice that she’s not afraid to tack to Hillary’s left in order to lay out her own agenda. She’s been Clinton’s philosophical bĂȘte noire since before she joined the Senate, and she’ll hold Clinton’s feet to the fire on running with a populist message. The same message Warren has wielded effectively for years.

Hillary's understanding of Warren's deft grasp of populist politics explains the images that crowd Hillary's announcement video, pictures from what might as well be a Bank of America TV-ad exhibition. Peter Beinert writes in The Atlantic of how that translates for him, imagistically:

“It’s not just the image of a gay male couple holding hands while announcing their impending wedding, followed later by what appears to be a lesbian couple. It’s not just the biracial couple. Or the brothers speaking Spanish. It’s also the absence of culturally conservative imagery: no clergymen, no police, one barely noticeable church.”

Watch Hillary Clinton's announcement

Hillary starts with a millennial advantage, maybe: For voters between 18 and 29 years of age in 2016, the name “Clinton” won’t really have any historical resonance beyond the former senator and secretary of state. The first-blush name recognition likely begins and ends with her — not her husband, the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, who was first elected before they were born, and re-elected when the oldest of the millennial cohort was nine years old.

Those millennials, a bloc of voters that USA Today estimates will be 100 million strong next year, represent a tantalizing opportunity for Clinton to establish her brand and persona with a demographic set to be the largest in the nation very soon, if it isn’t already. Hers is a brand they already recognize and respect; those younger voters could be ready to sing her praises where it counts two Novembers from now.

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BUT THERE’S another side to the millennials, one that works against an establishment politician like Clinton. It’s there in a Spring 2014 poll of millennials by the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University.

Harvard Institute of Politics Director Trey Grayson said the poll “shows 18- to 29- year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low, and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher. To inspire the next generation to public service – and to improve our communities – our elected officials need to move past the bitter partisanship and work together to ensure progress and restore trust in government.”

That cynicism could be Clinton’s road to victory over confirmed Republican contenders Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — two men from a party whose existential identity crisis seems to enter new phases every month — and fence-sitter Jeb Bush of Florida, probably Clinton’s most formidably centrist challenger (if he decides to get in).

Or it could be just the ticket for Elizabeth Warren or any other outlier candidate, female or otherwise, bold enough to claim the mantle of the new. The 2016 election could change everything. A lot depends on how much distance Clinton puts between herself and the past — the same past she’s compelled to rely on.

Image credits: Clinton: Getty Images via Clinton and Obama 2008: Michal Czerwonka/EPA via Warren: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta.

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