Can Hillary Clinton Win the Hearts of Liberals? Does She Need To?


AP Photo/Molly Riley

Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to applause from the audience as she appeared at an event to discuss her new book in Washington, Friday, June 13, 2014. Clinton discussed choices and challenges she faced during her four years as America's 67th Secretary of State, and how these experiences drive her view of the future. 

Fleeting though it is, the flush of infatuation is one of the most powerful emotions any of us experience in our lives. Its power derives in part from the fact that the object of our attention is new and unfamiliar to us; we cast a glow of wonder on every new thing we learn about that person. Now and again, it can happen in politics too. It did in 2008, when the seemingly inevitable nomination of Hillary Clinton was derailed by a charmer from Chicago who sent Democratic voters swooning.  

Even then, Hillary Clinton was the candidate of liberals' heads, while Barack Obama became the candidate of their hearts. He may not have had a résumé as lengthy as hers or quite the stamina for endless policy discussion that she had, but he could stir voters' souls and offer them the promise of transformation. She, on the other hand, offered something much more grounded, even a little grim. "Making change is not about what you believe," she said during one debate. "It's not about a speech you make. It's about working hard." It was a realistic and accurate assessment, but not exactly one to make you flush with excitement.

And as she moves toward another presidential candidacy, Clinton's appeal for Democrats is still to the head. She won't be an ideological warrior and she may not put a catch in your throat with soaring rhetoric, but she's smart, competent, and experienced. You don't have to love her, you just have to hire her.

For Republicans, on the other hand, Clinton is most emphatically a candidate of the heart. They may be able to come up with more than enough rational reasons to oppose her, but their feelings are powerful and primal. It took a while for Republicans to work up an intense dislike of Barack Obama; in fact, when he first emerged, conservatives were falling all over themselves to praise him. But Hillary Clinton comes pre-loathed.

The hatred (and that isn't too strong a word to use) many conservatives feel toward Clinton could be one of her greatest assets should she become the Democratic nominee. As far as they're concerned, her record as a center-left Democrat—the very thing that gives so many liberals pause—is but a ruse concealing a radical agenda, to be revealed when she takes office and casts aside the cloak of moderation she has worn for two decades. As is so often the case when we truly detest a political figure, they are convinced that nothing she says is sincere, and no position, no matter how long-held, is the product of anything but the most cynical political calculation.

As exaggerated as that view might be, there are some real questions she'll have to answer about cynical calculation, as she did when being interviewed by Terry Gross last week. Gross pressed Clinton about her shift on gay marriage, since she initially supported the repugnant Defense of Marriage Act (which her husband signed), then became a supporter of civil unions, and finally came around to support full marriage equality.

"So what's it like when you're in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage that you actually believe in?" Gross asked, a characterization Clinton took issue with (without specifying exactly when her view changed).

One of the interesting things about this exchange was Gross's assumption that Clinton must have been a supporter of gay marriage all along even if she wasn't willing to say it, an assumption many conservatives no doubt share, since it reinforces their belief in her deceitfulness. I was reminded of the fact that both irreligious liberals and intensely religious conservatives shared the belief that Barack Obama's professions of Christian faith were insincere and politically motivated. The former liked him so much they couldn't believe he didn't share that aspect of their worldview, and the latter disliked him so much they couldn't believe he did.

It's hard to ignore an analogy between the politics of marriage equality and those of the Iraq War: When Clinton cast her 2002 vote authorizing George W. Bush to go to war, the position was a safe one for a mainstream Democrat, but by 2008 it became her greatest liability. That's true even if Clinton, a longtime hawk, was probably more genuine in her approval of war than some other Democrats with an eye on the White House, such as John Kerry. That isn't to say that marriage equality will loom as large in 2016 as Iraq did in 2008; while Clinton may face more questions about her change of heart on marriage, it will likely be a relatively minor primary issue. And of course, marriage equality is a much bigger problem for Republicans. When someone like Scott Walker doesn't want to say where he stands on gay marriage, you know just how far the ground has shifted and what a hard time GOP candidates will have satisfying both their core supporters and the broader electorate.

In the meantime, Republicans are growing worried about Clinton's candidacy, as much because of her strengths as because of their own weaknesses as a party trying to assemble a national majority with a shrinking base. Last weekend, GOP bigwigs gathered in Deer Valley, Utah, at Mitt Romney's behest, to plot strategy. As the New York Times reported, though the official theme of the meeting was "The Future of American Leadership," the unofficial theme was more specific: "Is Hillary beatable?" Spirits were so low, it was said, that there was actually discussion of another Romney candidacy.

There have been few candidates who appealed more emphatically to the head over the heart than Romney, which is only one of the reasons the idea of him running again is so absurd (and to his credit, he has no taste for it). As for Clinton, she may be a better candidate than she was in 2008, but she can't be a wholly different one. She'll demonstrate her deep knowledge of policy both foreign and domestic. She'll be a tireless campaigner. Her speeches will be thoughtful and thorough, delivered well enough to make you say, "That was good," even if you don't have to wipe away any tears.

Like every other candidate, Hillary Clinton is who she is, for both better and worse. She may not make your spirit soar. But she probably won't have to.





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