Hillary Clinton for President? An American Prospect Debate

by Garance Franke-Ruta

"Hillary Clinton is too ambitious to be our first female president," an editorial in The Onion joked last year. "What's more, nobody asked her to run. ... Shouldn't the first woman to break the gender barrier of the American presidency be the type of woman who listens to those who doubt her and bows to public opinion more often?"

As liberals winnow down the unusually strong field of Democratic presidential contenders to a single standard-bearer for their philosophy and party, they need to be on guard that their own opinions about Clinton go beyond Onion territory. Hillary Clinton faces unique uphill battles on account of her gender, but it is precisely a commitment to justice that should make liberals support her in those battles, rather than flee her side simply because her gender helps make her a divisive figure.

The most important division Clinton begets is between men and women, and the conservative-liberal divide on her emerges in part from the gendered division of political beliefs in America. An ABC News poll of Democrats and Republicans in January found that men were divided 49 percent to 48 percent on Hillary, while women backed her with 59 percent positive to 39 percent negative impressions. According to a December 2006 Washington Post-ABC News poll, the same divide existed among Democratic voters. Clinton had a 20-point lead among Democratic women, with 49 percent of them -- but only 29 percent of men -- backing her as their first choice. Since then she has increased her margin of support enough that if women alone were voting, and the election were held today, she would almost certainly be elected the next president of America.

In addition to convincing men of her candidacy, she needs to convince Democratic pundits and insiders, many of whom have long considered the extra effort needed to elect women problematic and employed the very same vocabulary now being used against Clinton. "I think the idea of just supporting women candidates is divisive," Democratic donor and Broadway producer Chase Mishkin told New York magazine in 1998, when EMILY's List declined to support a male candidate. Today, Nancy Pelosi is routinely attacked within her own party and on national television as a divisive figure, despite running the most unified Democratic caucus since 1956 and leading Democrats back into the majority. It is simply anti-progressive to oppose the social progress that female candidates represent just because they come with more baggage. It is true that Clinton has high unfavorable ratings among the voting public. But those who think some other candidate would be less objectionable are confusing cause and effect, and unfairly attributing to the lone woman in the race what is common to most well-known Democratic figures. High unfavorable ratings are a product of having a national profile in a divided nation with a pugnacious, mudslinging political culture. The same February Washington Post-ABC poll that showed Hillary Clinton with a 48 percent unfavorable rating showed her husband, one of America's most beloved ex-presidents, with a 42 percent one. Fantasy presidential candidate and Oscar-winning environmental film star Al Gore had a 48 percent unfavorable rating in Rasmussen Reports' December 2006 survey, and former presidential nominee John Kerry's was at 53 percent. All national Democrats who seriously contend for power become polarizing figures who attract hateful independent-expenditure groups, vicious "exposés," and unending negative scrutiny from powerful conservative media outlets.

The good news is that candidates can succeed when they learn how to ride the whirlwind. In June 1992, candidate Bill Clinton had an unfavorable rating of 47 percent, according to a Times Mirror survey -- nearly identical to what his wife's is today. He managed to reduce that dramatically come fall (as his wife will need to) and win the election. Similarly, Gore had a 43 percent unfavorable rating in April 1999, according to a Pew Research Center survey, but managed to knock that down to the mid-30s by October 2000 and win the popular vote in November.

Perhaps the biggest misperceptions Hillary Clinton will have to overcome are that she is more liberal than she actually is on domestic issues (even though she is not the most liberal candidate in the field) and that she is too liberal to win a general election. In essence, those concerns amount to objecting to the fact that she is female. In an extensive review of the political-science literature, Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that "not only are women candidates of both parties seen as more liberal than their male counterparts, but that they are perceived as more liberal than they actually are." Further, "people use candidate sex as a cue in evaluating candidate ideology when they are faced with a woman candidate, but not when faced with a man." Clinton has the most moderate voting record of the four Democratic senators contending for the 2008 nomination, but it has taken two years of calculated moves on her part to get the public to understand this. In May 2005, 54 percent of respondents in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll said they considered her a liberal, and just 30 percent a moderate. But by August 2006, 67 percent were calling her a political moderate, according to a Time magazine poll -- a dramatic shift in opinion.

This moderation has put Clinton in a position to help resolve tensions around some truly divisive national issues, such as abortion, on which a female leader has more freedom to stake out new ground and also faces more expectations to act. Since 2005, Clinton has helped reframe the abortion debate so as to co-opt the most effective turn in contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric. As documented by Sarah Blustain and Reva Siegel in these pages [see "Mommy Dearest," October 2006], the anti-abortion movement's newest stratagem has been to argue that abortion hurts women, and to flood legislators with letters from grieving post-abortion women. Clinton has worked to defend choice even in that environment by unifying left and right around the shared goal of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies.

When Clinton gave her 2005 speech calling abortion a "tragic choice," some women's groups reacted with concern and outrage. But since then, there has been a major shift among abortion providers toward backing Clinton's pregnancy-prevention strategy and offering postabortion services that deal with women's psychological and spiritual needs. In January 2005, Clinton and anti-abortion Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid cosponsored the Prevention First Act, which provided $100 million to increase access to contraception through Title X, mandated that insurers cover contraception, and increased access to emergency contraception. Women's groups have been fighting for years on a state-by-state -- and in some cases hospital-by-hospital -- basis for uniform standards of contraceptive coverage and access to information about emergency contraception. Clinton's bill would use the federal government as it should be used: to create national standards that improve women's lives. That it might also reduce the political power of a contentious social issue is a welcome side effect.

Barack Obama, by contrast, has not been willing to stake out strong opinions in this arena. He sat out five abortion votes in the Illinois state Senate in 2001, voting "present" rather than "yes" or "no" on two parental-notification bills and three "born-alive" bills, thereby failing to stand up for the positions he now says, in The Audacity of Hope, he holds. Edwards, for his part, has no record of leadership on women's issues, and has tried awkwardly to address Clinton's candidacy through an unsophisticated surrogate operation involving Kate Michelman, the former president of abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the hiring of bomb-throwing feminist bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwen, who resigned after they became the subjects of national controversy.

But Clinton knows that both women and men care about foreign policy and the war more than they do about abortion, which wasn't even a voting issue for young single women in 2004, according to an analysis by Women's Voices, Women Vote. As much as John Edwards has tried to turn his 2005 statement about his 2002 vote on the Iraq War resolution -- "I was wrong" -- into an exculpatory statement for himself, and a rhetorical trap for Clinton, voters are not buying it. A February Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to the Post, "found that 52 percent of Democrats said her vote was the right thing to do at the time, while 47 percent said it was a mistake. Of those who called it a mistake ... just 31 percent said she should apologize." Further, "among Democrats who called the war the most important issue," Clinton led Obama 40 percent to 26 percent, while Edwards, who has made contrition part of his presidential platform, is rapidly being outflanked by Obama and Clinton in Iowa, his strongest state.

This is where ignoring the elephant in the room -- Clinton's unique position as a female candidate -- really starts to matter for liberals. Women are more anti-war than men. The very same population that most supports Clinton is the one that has most consistently and most ferociously favored withdrawing troops from Iraq and opposed intervening in Iran. And this same group has signaled its belief that the liberal values expressed by electing the first female president in our nation's history trump the value of having that person apologize for her vote.

Just as African American voters quickly flocked to Obama's side after he declared his candidacy, women voters have buoyed Clinton. Perhaps this is because, on the merits of their recent activities, none of the candidates has been an effective anti-war tribune. In the Senate, Obama and Clinton have submitted dueling bills to extract America from Iraq, but neither senator's legislation has a chance of passage. And Edwards, for all his fiery speeches, has been just as helpless when it comes to changing the commander in chief's mind. Clinton has said that if elected, she will end the war in Iraq. This position seems likely to be accepted by those already inclined to see her as a leader.

To be sure, Obama has room to grow, and he may yet overtake Clinton as a candidate. There is a strong progressive case to be made for him as well, both on the merits and in terms of the justice issues at stake in defending him against the well-documented attacks black candidates face when seeking higher office. But once upon a time, liberalism was supposed to include defenses of women's quest for equality, too. Clinton herself has realized this, unrolling both a pay-equity act for women and a campaign strategy to appeal to women as women. We ought to at least make sure that liberal critiques of Clinton don't gussy up conservative traditionalism in the guise of world-weary political realism.


by Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias

In 1999, the democratic party had a problem: Daniel Patrick Moynihan was retiring from the U.S. Senate; Rudy Giuliani, already a nationwide celebrity with a solid donor base and a record of winning votes in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, was slated for the Republican nomination; with Andrew Cuomo and Carl McCall out of the race, Democrats looked likely to lose what should have been a safe Senate seat.

What they needed was someone with wide name recognition who could appeal to the Democratic base and prevent too much of the city from defecting to Giuliani, but who also wasn't so closely identified with New York City that he or she would alienate voters upstate. The solution, of course, turned out to be Hillary Rodham Clinton, first lady of the United States.

The qualities that worked for Clinton's Senate campaign in 2000, however, are not as compelling for a presidential run in 2008. Name recognition, something Clinton has in spades, is a major asset in virtually any political campaign except a general election for the presidency. Strong support from Democratic base voters is sufficient to win statewide in New York, but not nationwide.

Of course, a candidate who appeals to the Democratic base because of a long record of leadership on key progressive issues or unusually liberal policy positions is someone to be welcomed, even if her positions make centrist outreach that much more necessary. Clinton, however, doesn't fit the bill. Rather, she is, on the merits, the least progressive of the major Democratic candidates in the race, and also the one with the least appeal to moderate and independent voters -- the exact reverse, in short, of what liberals should be looking for in a nominee.

A lot of liberals fail to recognize this basic calculation, and there's a reason for that: We've now spent 15 fraught but hard-fought years with the Clintons as national Democratic leaders, during an era animated by a truly vicious and extreme Republican Party. It was often said that Bill Clinton was fortunate in his enemies, but if anything, this is even truer of his wife. The personal ugliness and fury of the right's obsessive attacks on Hillary Clinton have naturally served to bond liberal Democrats to her in defense, as does the often notably irresponsible treatment she (like her husband) has received from the mainstream press.

This dynamic remains in place today. On the right, GOP activists gear up to mount a full-on assault, replete with at least two "527" outfits targeting Clinton, a documentary exposé starring former Bill Clinton adviser and Ahab-like Hillary obsessive Dick Morris, and several books following the illustrious path forged in 2005 by Edward Klein's The Truth About Hillary (which documented Hillary's early embrace of "revolutionary lesbianism").

In other words, there's never a shortage of fresh outrages against her that naturally prompt liberals' sympathy and support. But of course, nobody is entitled to a presidential nomination on account of unfair treatment at the hands of scoundrels, and liberals should avoid the danger of judging Clinton's political maneuvers and struggles from her perspective rather than from the perspective of what's best for liberalism.

The psychodrama that is Clinton's long fight with the right -- and with deep-seated forces of sexism and ignorance in the country -- has tended to blind too many people to straightforward assessments of her actual views and political record. (A recent Mother Jones cover story spent 4,500 words ruminating on the various roles Clinton has come to play in the culture -- "the Eleanor Roosevelt Hillary," "the Lady Macbeth Hillary" -- without discussing her record or stated political views at all.) Now that primary season is upon us, and some choices have emerged in the Democratic field, such assessments are overdue. And they demonstrate that Clinton's record is, in fact, fairly unpalatable from a liberal's point of view.

In a New York Times profile back in 1999, James Bennet wrote that "Clinton is widely viewed as more liberal than her husband, but there is not much evidence to support that." This remains the case today. On national security, Clinton's specific positions have, like those of many prominent Democratic politicians, tended to drift around over the years. She has, however, consistently positioned herself as one of the more hawkish members of her party, and she continues to do so.

Clinton has refused to apologize for her vote in favor of the Iraq War, a decision her campaign explains is driven, variously, by the political imperative not to appear as a flip-flopper, a substantive belief in the importance of executive power in foreign affairs, and -- oddest of all -- the claim that she never actually voted for war. "When I set forth my reasons for giving the president that authority," she recently told the New Hampshire Union-Leader, "I said that it was not a vote for pre-emptive war." She did say that, but it still was a vote for such a war. Later, on the eve of the invasion, March 17, 2003, Clinton was still saying that she hoped to avoid the use of force in Iraq, but at the same time seemed to be justifying the president's rush to war. "The president," she observed, "gave Saddam Hussein one last chance to avoid war" by abandoning power and leaving Iraq (Hussein had already allowed weapons inspectors into the country), "and the world hopes that Saddam Hussein will finally hear this ultimatum, understand the severity of those words, and act accordingly." Clinton, in short, understood the severity of the president's words, yet she offered no objection either to his characterization of Saddam Hussein's "defiance" or to an American invasion if Hussein did not give in to threats.

Clinton is hardly alone in having changed her view on the war, and some of those who have done so are even trumpeting their own change of heart. By contrast, Clinton's new dissembling, on an issue where the record is so clear, fits a pattern: Not only is she not much of a liberal, she actually seems determined to insult liberals' intelligence. "The political bet," wrote The New Republic's Ryan Lizza last year in a revelatory article about Clinton's team of advisers, "is that, in a presidential campaign, the Democratic base of women, blacks, and labor can be won over in two ways: old-fashioned outreach and stroking by people like [Clinton spokeswoman Ann] Lewis or by the sheer star power of Hillary Clinton." The bet, in short, is that liberals can be played for suckers.

What about domestic policy? The news that Mark Penn is serving as Clinton's pollster and key political adviser (a role he's maintained since her first Senate race) should send shivers down the spines of any liberal. Penn's idée fixe since the 1990s has been the invention of new "swing" groups composed of prosperous white men ("wired workers," "office-park dads," etc.) for the purposes of arguing that the Democratic Party should become less economically progressive. In addition to his work for Clinton and for various corporations such as Citibank, Texaco, and Microsoft, Penn was for years house pollster for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), where support for Clinton also runs strong. The organization does not formally endorse candidates, but upon taking office, incoming Chairman Harold Ford wrote in a memo to the group's founder and CEO, Al From, that he "assume[s] there will be an effort to help Senator Clinton's campaign and ... I would support such an effort."

Like the DLC, Clinton is making balanced budgets a top economic priority, calling for "a new bipartisan consensus" on deficit reduction in a major 2006 address at Chicago's Economic Club. Meanwhile, her sentiments on health care in that speech -- referencing "the scars from having dealt with health care some years ago" and calling for a new path involving "a public-private-sector consensus" -- reflected the approach of her legislative director, Laurie Rubiner. Rubiner is a health-care specialist who worked for Republican Senators John Chafee and Bob Dole in the 1990s and helped draft a more conservative alternative (involving an individual mandate to purchase health insurance and subsidies to the poor, similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan in California) to "Hillary Care."

Of course, on most domestic issues -- whether the environment, taxes, or judicial nominations -- Clinton is a perfectly orthodox Democrat. She has not, however, stood out as a leader on any major progressive causes during her time in the Senate -- she was not a central player in congressional Democrats' make-or-break fight against Social Security privatization, for example, and has declined to use her name and platform to make any significant issue a signature. One area in which she has stood out from the Democratic pack is in adopting socially conservative rhetoric and positions, whether pushing a bill banning flag burning, attempting to "reframe" the abortion debate, or calling for an increased federal role in video-game censorship. She has also famously engaged in a series of high-profile team-ups on various issues with hard-right Republicans, including Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, and Newt Gingrich. The political benefit to Clinton in such gambits has been considerable. But liberals should presumably find nothing to applaud in any of this unless they expect something real -- and progressive -- in return.

And there's the rub. Clinton's national reputation as a liberal is pervasive, and it means that even beyond her apparently genuine centrism, she's uniquely hamstrung in staking out any boldly liberal stances on a major issue. At the same time, her national reputation as a liberal is so firmly entrenched that she will likely find it extremely difficult to broaden her appeal to the electorate. There's been too little polling on the subject, but a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that asked whether Clinton is a liberal or a moderate, conducted in May 2005 (near the height of her conservative positioning phase), had 54 percent of respondents classifying her as a liberal, and just 30 percent as a moderate. Years of adopting conservative issue positions, meanwhile, have not brought her back to the heights of personal popularity she enjoyed during the late 1990s -- popularity that seems intrinsically tied to the ups and downs of her marriage rather than to her conduct in office. Her unfavorability ratings remain significant, and they have barely budged from the mid-40s during her entire Senate tenure. No Democratic candidate would enter a general election facing a lower, and firmer, ceiling of public support than Hillary Clinton.

Liberal Democrats should want a nominee who is, in fact, a liberal. And liberals and moderates alike have should want a nominee who's seen as a moderate by the median voter. Clinton, however, is a moderate who people think is a liberal. This is a terrible combination of qualities from almost every point of view -- except, perhaps, for the faction of her advisers whose views are probably too right-wing to be associated with the Democratic presidential nominee, unless they can latch onto the one candidate both blessed and cursed with an undeserved reputation for liberalism. Well, bully for them. But liberals should open their eyes.