Why Hillary won’t win the race to the White House
A Democratic front-runner. A trajectory that seemed to lead inexorably to the presidency. We have been here before with Hillary Clinton, in 2007-08. But an upstart half-term senator from Illinois – one Barack Obama – deprived her of the Oval Office then, and as the primary season begins in earnest for the 2016 US presidential elections a creeping suspicion arises: is it possible that Mrs Clinton will miss out on a return to the White House as its official occupant rather than First Lady, once again?
Only a year ago or so she seemed inevitable. Every poll showed her way ahead in the general election in any possible contest, with high levels of popularity even among Republican voters. Her candidacy was long anticipated. As far back as 2013, when she stood down as secretary of state, nine out of 10 Democrats said they would support a Hillary run for the presidency, while a remarkable half of Republican women said they would be prepared to vote for her.
There was simply no one else who could beat her for the Democratic nomination (having received only 1 per cent of the vote in an early caucus in 2008, vice president Joe Biden was not considered to be a serious contender). And there was no obvious Republican who could beat her recognition and a record that by then included eight years in the senate and four years as, effectively, America’s foreign minister.
Mrs Clinton has now faced her first two contests, the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, against Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, which in the US is as close as possible to saying you’re a communist and usually just as unpopular. But she won the first so narrowly – by 0.3 per cent of the vote – that Mr Sanders’ camp counted it as a victory for him. And unless there was a huge upset, supporters of the 74-year-old maverick will have been celebrating the real thing in New Hampshire last night.
A reality check: these first two primaries are not necessarily indicative of how the campaign will continue. The southern states are likely to swing big for Mrs Clinton, and Mr Sanders has yet to make much of an impact on the black and Hispanic voters on whom his opponent will be counting. The party establishment is behind Mrs Clinton, and assuming no scandal erupts to derail her campaign, it seems safe to assume she will win the Democratic nomination.
But she clearly has a number of issues that speak to why she is not doing better now and which could harm her seriously in the general election.
Unexpectedly, the first woman to stand a chance of becoming president has a woman problem. One might have assumed that Mrs Clinton had her own sex in the bag, but a recent poll showed Mr Sanders ahead of her by eight percentage points among female Democrats in New Hampshire.
The first woman to be secretary of state, Madeleine Albright – who served under Mrs Clinton’s husband Bill – scolded those who aren’t supporting Mrs Clinton by saying “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. But it seems the excitement that ought to attach to her as a likely candidate to break the highest glass ceiling in the world is failing to materialise.
Maybe it was there the last time, in 2007-08, and possibility then of having either a female or a black American becoming president means that there has already been a sort of joint celebration of “firsts” and the same energy cannot be generated again.
Mrs Clinton also has a youth problem. Young Democratic voters so far prefer Mr Sanders to her by a startlingly large margin – by 76 per cent to 24 per cent among those under 30 in New Hampshire, while in Iowa Mr Sanders was supported by a massive 84 per cent of 18-29 year olds.
This, along with the fact that she is patently a candidate of the establishment (not to mention Wall Street, where she has earned hundreds of thousands delivering speeches), point to a great obstacle for Mrs Clinton.
All over the world, and very clearly in America given the success of Mr Sanders and Donald Trump, people want change. But Mrs Clinton doesn’t look much like a change any more.
To an extent, she offers herself as the heir to Mr Obama, at least in terms of his successes. On foreign policy she is, in fact, somewhat to his right – which will not help her with those who want something, anything, that appears “radical”. Where she is arguably to his left, such as on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, she is undermined by having been for it before she was against it – which adds to the charge of inauthenticity which already hovers around her.
Assuming she is the Democratic nominee, all of the above contributes to what could be a devastating weakness.
In a general election, is she going to be able to generate the necessary excitement to get out the vote?
Mrs Clinton is aware of this defect. “I am who I am,” she said recently. “I can’t do some sort of personality transplant.” If that leaves Democrats relying on voters being so put off by a Republican such as Mr Trump or Senator Ted Cruz, that would be a great gamble – and should question Mrs Clinton’s suitability for the nomination to begin with.
Mrs Clinton is in many ways an admirable figure, and an inspirational one for women who want to believe that no job, no position, should be closed to them merely because of their sex. Through the previous polls and the 2008 primaries, she has demonstrated that her fellow citizens are ready to contemplate a female president.
Her worry now, though, is that they might not to be so keen on contemplating her as Potus.
So if she runs and ends up being defeated, it won’t be because she’s a woman. It’ll be because she’s Hillary Clinton.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia
Published: February 9, 2016 04:00 AM