For a hypothetical political campaign, it seems very real. And it may be the longest yet. A grassroots army stands ready for #Hillary2016 and popstar Katy Perry has already offered to write a theme song.
Hillary Clinton’s artful non-answers aside, the machinery behind her swung into motion the day Barack Obama won his second term in 2012 and the field was cleared for 2016. A Twitter campaign has grown (@ReadyForHillary) along with an eponymous ‘Super PAC’—a special political action committee allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations and individuals. It was launched in April last year, barely two months after Hillary resigned as secretary of state to write her memoir and get some much-needed rest.
Rest she did but she also consulted political strategists, met number-crunchers, made speeches at $2,00,000 a pop, all the while playing coy with the public. She gave innumerable versions of ‘I-haven’t-decided’ whether to run. Few take that answer seriously anymore. The only question now is when she would declare her candidacy, not ‘if’. Key segments of the Democratic Party want to break the glass ceiling, having already made history by putting the first African American in the Oval Office.
With the election more than two years away—a political eternity—it may seem ridiculous to hyperventilate about a candidate just yet. But not really, because America is a country in perpetual campaign mode, defined by constant political positioning, continuous voter surveys and ongoing battles to keep the flock. There is no rest.
The excitement around Hillary is building—some say to the annoyance of the current White House for the amount of national attention sucked up by her non-campaign. It must be doubly irksome in the face of Obama’s own ratings—his job approval number went down to 41 per cent last week as Iraq was added to the bulging basket of crises.
Hillary, meanwhile, went on to release her book, Hard Choices, last month in a publicity blitz. Less a book launch and more a rollout of a political campaign for ‘Candidate Hillary’, the soft sell started weeks before the June 10 release. To add to the buzz, ‘The Hillary Bus’ furnished by the Ready For Hillary Super PAC—as yet not officially adopted by her—is following the ‘candidate’. Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, calls it the ‘Clinton industrial news complex’. Anyway, whether Hillary intends it or not, her every move is being seen as part of a political strategy.
The book itself is not exactly flying off the shelf, with sales dropping 43 per cent in the second week. Truth be told, the 635 pages can be a plod, filled with tedious Lonely Planet guides to countries she visited as secretary of state and few critical insights. Scintillating prose, perhaps, wasn’t the aim. For Hillary’s strategists have managed to firmly convey that she is ready for the top job. Bottomline: she can be more hawkish than her male colleagues. She can deal with a complex world.
She writes in the book: “Our relationship with Pakistan was strictly transactional, based on mutual interest, not trust.” What she doesn’t explain is how US interests were served in repeatedly granting Pakistan favours when ISI-supported pro-Taliban militia were killing American soldiers. India gets little space in the tome, reinforcing the general belief that it doesn’t rank high on the strategic ladder for this administration.
Hard Choices is, ultimately, a calling card for a future job, a campaign book written expressly to not provoke. It establishes her gravitas but doesn’t challenge the establishment. Potential voters, especially men, are welcome to sense a smart, strong woman without feeling threatened. At least that is the hope because, like men anywhere, American men tend to have a hard time dealing with women in power.
But can Hillary Clinton win? She has a real shot—real enough for the Republican Party operatives to have already opened their toolbox. They first whispered about her age. Democrats countered that any talk about her age was sexist, ageist and unacceptable. Clinton is 66 now and would be 69 if she were to win in 2016—the same age as Ronald Reagan, a Republican demigod, when he took office in 1981.
That settled, Karl Rove, a Republican hatchet man, started a firestorm when he suggested that Hillary had a ‘traumatic brain injury’ and might have suffered brain damage when she was hospitalised in 2012 for a blood clot. Hillary’s spokesman Nick Merril shot back: “Karl Rove has deceived the country for years; she is 100 per cent. Period.” Rove is now plugging the line that she is ‘old and stale’ and Americans “don’t like people who seem to already have it made”. This is just a small taste of what could turn out to be a long menu, as Republicans dig deep into the past for mud to fling at Hillary.
It is difficult to say which remains a stronger strain in American society—racism or sexism. Obama has been depicted in posters and e-mails as a shoeshine man, even a chimp. T-shirts with ‘Put the white back in the White House’ and ‘Obama is my slave’ were the milder attacks. Respect normally accorded to a president is sometimes noticeably missing when people address him.
But in public discourse racism is largely not tolerated while sexism still is, and Hillary has been a victim. Even leading lights of the US media have thought nothing of calling her a ‘she-devil’, as host Chris Matthews of MSNBC did during her 2008 presidential bid.
Hillary has faced sexism since she came into national consciousness as the First Lady in 1993—quite another era on the social evolutionary scale. She was intelligent, forthright and professionally qualified. Her remark that she didn’t want to stay home and bake cookies while her husband was governor of Arkansas sparked angry reactions from stay-at-home moms and political rivals. Her hair/pantsuits/scrunchies routinely made more news than her efforts to reform healthcare. She has been called a ‘witch’, and something that rhymes with it. She faced hecklers who yelled, “Iron my shirt” at campaign rallies.
Apart from sexist attacks, Hillary will face tough questions on domestic and foreign policy issues. Her tenure as America’s chief diplomat was scarred by the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. Republicans accuse her of mishandling security and have relentlessly kept a line of questioning open on Benghazi through congressional hearings. But for all that, it’s on domestic issues that she must establish her supremacy. And she has had a few fumbles there.
Questions are being raised whether she is out of touch with the lives of ordinary Americans who are struggling on minimum wage jobs as income inequality grows. Hillary came under fire last month for defending the millions of dollars she and her husband have earned since leaving public office. She told ABC television that when they left the White House, they were “not only dead broke but in debt” and how hard it was to find the money for “mortgages for houses”—note the plural. Her attempts to explain the gaffe only made it worse when she said they were not as rich as some other Americans.
The Clintons are rich enough and firmly among the top one per cent, even though they came from humble beginnings. A Washington Post investigation found that between 2001 and 2013, Bill Clinton made $104.9 million from 542 speeches around the world. Hillary’s advance for Hard Choices is unknown, but it probably is in the range of $8 million—the amount she received for her first memoir, Living History.
In a post-Occupy movement world, where French economist Thomas Piketty has proven that the US has the worst wealth gap (top 10 per cent of Americans have 50 per cent of the country’s income) in the world, Hillary’s family income can become an inflammable issue, especially if the Republican contender doesn’t come from the privileged classes. Hillary provides a target-rich environment. Could she overcome the negatives to shatter the glass ceiling? Nothing is decided yet.
By Seema Sirohi in Washington DC