Hillary Clinton — the only first lady to run for public office — has been in the public spotlight almost nonstop since Bill Clinton began campaigning for president in 1991, a period of nearly 25 years. Even at that time, Hillary’s political aspirations were clear; amidst campaigning, Bill Clinton told voters that they would get “two [presidents] for the price of one” if they elected him. That statement was quite controversial at the time because it suggested a power-sharing strategy that ran contrary to the constitutional balance of power. The obvious alliance between the two Clintons dogged Hillary’s own presidential run in 2008. If Barack Obama was criticized for his lack of experience, Hillary Clinton not only faced that same question but also allegations that she was drawing heavily on her husband’s legacy for her political capital. Still, one could argue that her time the spotlight has given her the opportunity to defend her career, and in fact, expand her career. After all, she was appointed to Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of State following her loss of the Democratic nomination.
Her time in the spotlight also means that the ins and outs of her public and personal life are on full display. There is no aura of mystery to Hillary, no novelty. But the real problems for Hillary Clinton are three-fold, and the fact that political wonks have been discussing and will continue to discuss her flaws for months and months illustrates just how unfortunate it is to be a front-runner. She definitely is a front-runner at this point in the 2016 presidential elections. National polls conducted this year have shown support among Democratic voters to be as high as 73%. Yet, the fact that nearly all the Democratic congressional candidates Hillary Clinton campaigned for this year lost, is evidence of not only the broader problems facing the party in coming elections, but also her own limitations as the head of the party. And her poll numbers are not quite as high as they once were, although the latest figures show her popularity far surpasses that of any GOP contender in three key swing states: Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The 2016 elections may be nearly two years away and Clinton has yet to announce, but her campaign does appear to be taking shape. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Colleen McCain Nelson, White House adviser John Podesta will take a senior role at Clinton’s would-be presidential campaign — the clearest indicator thus far that the former Secretary of State is considering a second bid. Podesta previously served as White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton, as president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, and as the head of Obama’s transitional team after he became president. Clinton has also hired Joel Benenson and Jim Margolis, two veterans of the Obama campaign, as her chief strategist and media adviser, respectively. Meanwhile, despite the entreaties of the revived Democratic Left, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren maintains she has no intention of running.
In all likelihood, Clinton will run. But here are some areas where she faces challenges:
1. Politics and Experience
True, the Hillary Clinton of 2016 is more experienced than the Hillary Clinton of 2008. Excluding her time as first lady, Clinton has spent 12 years in public office; eight of those as a senator for New York and four as Secretary of State during Obama’s first term. And the difference between her 2008 run and her potential 2016 run is that she gained leadership experience on the international stage, a very important accomplishment for any presidential hopeful, especially one that follows the Obama administration, which has been critiqued for its inexperience in handling foreign policy. Of course, all presidents have their weak points; just as Republicans claimed Obama was unqualified for the nation’s highest office because he was merely a community organizer, Democrats argue George W. Bush simply leveraged his family name to become governor of Texas, his springboard into the White House.
Hillary definitely has a legacy problem to overcome. More importantly, she has to talk up her record as Secretary of State. A sizable share of Democrats polled by YouGov, 79%, said earlier this year that they approved of her performance, but only 21% of Republicans and 45% of independents shared that assessment. And public opinion split along the same ideological lines when respondents were asked about her qualifications for office. More to the point, most Republicans are not as concerned with her experience as they are with her politics; although Republicans and independent voters cite her role in the Benghazi terrorist attack as one of her major errors in the State Department.
Having been a member of Obama’s cabinet, Hillary Clinton is decidedly a part of the Democratic establishment, meaning her rhetoric follows a pattern. Comments made by Kentucky Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful, Republican Rand Paul, seem to suggest Clinton has nothing new to offer the American voter. “Somebody should ask Hillary Democrats why they got wiped out tonight. Clearly, Hillary is yesterday’s news,” he wrote in an email to Breitbart News, referring to the results of the November 4 midterms. Many leading Republicans framed the results as evidence of the American public’s disappointment with the Democrats in power. Hillary Clinton is part of that group because her politics fall under the same failed banner. Of course, this is not exactly evidence of Hillary’s fallibility but of “deep dissatisfaction with the political establishment,” as Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, told the New Yorker.
Clinton made efforts to distance herself from the politics of the Obama administration before Republicans began framing the election results as evidence of the Democratic party’s deep problems. Most notably, in an August interview with the Atlantic, she made a critique of the president’s foreign policy maxim of “don’t do stupid stuff” in a clear effort to illustrate how her administration would differ from that of Obama’s. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Hillary Clinton told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. And the Obama administration’s “failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against [Syrian President Bashar al- Assad] — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”
But even when her ties to the current administration and position in the Clinton dynasty were ignored, Clinton’s positions on economics and foreign affairs make her a centrist. And that might not make her the best choice to lead the Democratic ticket in 2016.
2. The Competition
During each of the past two presidential elections, the Republican candidates — Arizona Senator John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in 2012 — pulled to the right over the course of the campaign. And it is not so difficult to imagine that any prospective Democrat will face a challenge defining their beliefs. Republicans saw the midterms as a mandate for the party to check Obama: Pass the Keystone pipeline, possibly repeal Obamacare, and oppose the president’s planned executive action on immigration reform. With history pointing to pattern of GOP candidates accentuating their conservative positions and this so-called mandate, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Democratic party’s 2016 candidate will not have to be a moderate. That would leave room for a more progressive or unexpected Democratic candidate. And historically non-establishment, less-experienced Democrats have shaken up presidential races before, even for just a brief moment: Walter Mondale in 1984, Bill Badley in 2000, and Howard Dean in 2004.
Therefore, Hillary Clinton could be too establishment. Of course, possible contenders who would fit this progressive and insurgent role do not have the same weight as the former Secretary of State. But they are worth examining, if for nothing else than the fresh perspective and debate they will bring to the presidential primaries.
- Martin O’Malley, the Governor of Maryland, has one serious problem: There is no key demographic group he could steal from Hillary Clinton, and she could easily appropriate any of his campaign points that gain traction with voters. O’Malley has said he is preparing a bid, and five-time candidate Ralph Nader has given the governor his support. “He’s credible in a lot of areas,” Nader said of O’Malley in an interview on Fox News Talk Radio. “He may surprise people.” O’Malley’s biggest source of credibility has been his application of a data-driven approach to policymaking that has even helped reduce the murder rate in Baltimore to below 300 per year. That may seem a small victory for a presidential hopeful, yet his strategy of harnessing computer-assisted metrics to measure government performance could appeal to Democratic voters disillusioned with Obama administration transparency. And as a foil to Hillary’s centrist bent, O’Malley’s government has seen the approval of gun-control legislation, the repeal of the death penalty, legislation limiting when the state may detain immigrants, and a minimum wage hike.
- Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who has also signaled an interest in running, does appeal to a different breed of Democrats. And it is not simply because he is a moderate on foreign policy. He’s a man that has worked both in the public and private sector, giving voters evidence that he is not the career politician that so many Washington lawmakers are. As a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy, the one-term senator’s military experience tempers his moderate views on foreign policy. Plus, his war record will ignite debate over Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness, a quality that could isolate more liberal Democrats. Webb’s values resonate with the college-educated liberals, rural voters, and the working class. When he ran for the Senate in 2006, he did well in both North Virginia (home to Washington D.C. commuters) and the rural, working-class voters in Appalachia.
“There is a big tendency among a lot of Democratic leaders to feed some raw meat to the public on smaller issues that excite them, like the minimum wage, but don’t really address the larger problem,” Webb told the New Yorker in a recent interview. “A lot of the Democratic leaders who don’t want to scare away their financial supporters will say we’re going to raise the minimum wage, we’re going do these little things, when in reality we need to say we’re going to fundamentally change the tax code so that you will believe our system is fair.”
- Bernie Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont, may have little chance of winning, but he could push other candidates to address the issues he feels most passionate about, including equal pay for women, climate change, increasing minimum wage, and taking big money out of politics. His criticism for Bill Clinton’s presidency, and by association, Hillary Clinton’s politics, is harsh.“The Clinton administration worked arm in arm with Alan Greenspan — who is, on economic matters, obviously, an extreme right-wing libertarian — on deregulating Wall Street, and that was a total disaster,” Sanders told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “And then you had the welfare issue, trade policies. You had the Defense of Marriage Act.” While his rhetoric may sound appealing to some Democratic voters, it is important to remember that a socialist running on a third party ticket or even competing for the Democrat nomination will be incredibly difficult challenge. “It takes a huge amount of money and organizational time to even get on the ballot in fifty states,” he noted.
Hillary Clinton’s last problem may be specific, but it is worth analyzing. As senator, during the financial crisis, she defended Wall Street. Her friendship with the financial industry means she will likely have deep pockets for the 2016 presidential election, bringing large industry donors back to the Democratic party for the first time since Bill Clinton’s presidency ended. According to the Wall Street Journal, Wall Street has provided the largest source of campaign funds for the Clintons since 1992, with Goldman Sachs as the largest single contributor, giving close to $5 million. “Clinton Inc. is going to be the most formidable fundraising operation for the Democrats in the history of the country. Period. Exclamation point,” Rick Hohlt, a lobbyist and fundraiser for Republican Party presidential candidates, told the Journal, “It sure causes concern.” Plus, both Clintons earn massive speaking fees.
And the Clintons’ Personal wealth has grown into somewhat of a controversy, especially after Hillary told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that, “We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt.” She claimed that the legal fees from the Whitewater scandal and the impeachment trial ate up a large portion of the president’s $200,000 per-year presidential salary, leaving the couple $12 million in debt. Yet, both Hillary and Bill earned considerable incomes in the years after the White House; Hillary earned an $8 million advance to publish her first memoir, Living History, and drew an annual salary of $186,000 as Secretary of State, while Bill was paid a reported $15 million advance for his memoir, My Life. Those earnings allowed the couple to pay their debts and enabled them to acquire luxury real estate assets — including a $1.7 million mansion in Chappaqua, N.Y. The Clintons released tax returns during Hillary’s 2008 presidential run showed they had earned $109 million over eight years. And at the end of 2012, the Clintons were worth between $5 million and $25.2 million, and Hillary Clinton has earned sizable speaking fees from such financial giants as Bank of America and Carlyle Group.
She did write a 2008 opinion piece for the Journal that “if we are going to take on the mortgage debt of storied Wall Street giants, we ought to extend the same help to struggling, middle-class families.” But her interactions with the financial sector tell a different story, especially when compared with Elizabeth Warren’s activism.
And it should not be forgotten that 2016 will be the first presidential primaries for the Democratic party since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed unlimited political spending by individuals.
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