Hillary Clinton announces presidential campaign: expert reaction

by Inderjeet Parmar, Clodagh Harrington, Rosa Freedman, Russell Bentley, Scott Lucas, and Tom Packer Inderjeet Parmar, City University London; Clodagh Harrington, De Montfort University; Rosa Freedman, University of Birmingham; Russell Bentley, University of Southampton; Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham, and Tom Packer, University of Oxford 13.04.2015

Former secretary of state, senator and first lady Hillary Clinton has announced her long-awaited 2016 presidential campaign. With the race for the presidency now truly underway, our panel of experts unpack what Clinton’s announcement really means.

Back to the 1990s

Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

The up side of this announcement is obvious. Clinton is smart, pragmatic, and experienced on both domestic and international affairs, with eight years in the Senate and four as secretary of state. And, thanks in part to her, we are no longer fixated on the novelty of a first woman president; gender, like race, is now no longer a serious determinant of eligibility for the presidency.

But there is a down side too. The “hope and change” of 2008 for a reshaped American political process, first and foremost searching for resolution of vital issues, appears to be gone. Instead, we are probably headed back to celebrity and polarised shouting as the fundamentals of presidential politics.

This could well be a contest illustrating the allure of dynasty, with Clinton possibly facing Jeb Bush in November 2016. Instead of vital discussion over the economy, health care and the future of US foreign policy, we could soon find ourselves back at the same nadir American political discourse hit in the 1990s. Get ready for a campaign filled with personal attacks on the cravenness and deviousness of the “immoral” Clintons – the same personality politics behind the 24/7 “shock talk” that now dominates the American media.

Fighting the right

Tom Packer, University of Oxford

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is often talked about as if it’s an unstoppable juggernaut and, in the Democratic primaries, that may well prove accurate. But that is very different from being unstoppable in the general election.

Since arriving on the national political scene in 1992, Clinton has always been one of the most controversial and divisive figures in American politics. She did have very high approval ratings during her tenure as secretary of state in the Obama administration, but those figures were naturally rather inflated. After all, standing up for the US’s interests abroad is unlikely to turn many voters off.

Her lead over her Republican opponents in various swing states has now fallen to a few percentage points. In national match-ups, she does not seem to be breaking the 50% barrier and is often only narrowly ahead or even behind. Given that unlike most of her potential rivals she enjoys almost 100% name recognition, that is ominous indeed for Clinton.

That said, the Republican field is as open as it has been since the 1940s, and it is hard to tell who would be Clinton’s strongest and weakest opponents. 

One has a particular weakness: Jeb Bush, son and brother of presidents. He is widely seen as the GOP frontrunner. If he wins the GOP nomination and is pitted against Clinton, that will immediately reduce the 2016 election to a choice between the legacies of George W Bush and Bill Clinton – not a choice the GOP would sensibly offer the American people, despite W’s improving reputation.

Other potential candidates have different vulnerabilities. For example, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has taken strong libertarian stances on drugs, which could plausibly turn off many middle-of-the-road Reublican voters.

But the main thing is to remember that Clinton could perfectly well lose a general election. She has 20 years of scandals and policy positions to haunt and embarrass her –and the recent fracas over her private email account is a sign of more to come. As always, the national economy will loom large in deciding the result.

A crack in the foundation

Inderjeet Parmar, City University London

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign already needs to answer many major questions about her integrity and judgement as much as what she might do about the Ukraine, IS or the rise of China. Since long before the campaign began, there have been conflict of interest claims over foreign government donations to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

The Foundation accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments – including governments with a dubious record on human rights – during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, skirting dangerously close to outright violation of conflict-of-interest agreements it had made with the Obama administration.

Other reports in 2013 suggested Frank Giustra, a prominent businessman and donor to the Clinton Foundation, secured major uranium mining contracts from Kazakhstan after Bill Clinton introduced him to the central Asian republic’s president. Guistra donated more than US$30m to the Clinton Foundation, with a promise of a further US$100m; he is now on the foundation’s governing Board of Directors.

In response, the Clinton Foundation argued that it was more transparent than the law required and would continue to be once Hillary declared her presidential candidacy.

But the problems go further. The Foundation’s work in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake has been roundly condemned.

An investigation by The Nation found that the Foundation’s first contributions to Haiti – hurricane-proof emergency trailers meant to serve as classrooms – were shoddy and dangerous. They were manufactured by Clayton Homes, which is being sued by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for having provided formaldehyde-laced trailers to Hurricane Katrina victims. Clayton Homes, in turn, is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway – and Buffet was an early and high-profile member of the Clinton Global Initiative.

Of course, Republicans who attack the Clintons overlook the funding scandals that engulfed high-profile members of their own party who set up non-political foundations whose neutrality was disputed – think John McCain, Newt Gingrich, or Tom DeLay.

But the Clintons and controversy are intimate bedfellows. And however hypocritical it is, this criticism is not going to stop.

Women’s rights are human rights

Rosa Freedman, University of Birmingham

Hillary Clinton is a women’s rights leader of the highest calibre. Two decades ago she used her platform to deliver a ground-breaking and world-changing speech in Beijing during which she famously said: “Let it be said that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

The legacy of that speech, and the doors that it opened for the women’s rights movement, was marked last month at the Beijing+20 (or the 59th annual CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Fittingly, Clinton delivered an equally powerful and compelling speech at that event, reminding the audience and the world that, despite the many steps forward that have been taken, so much more remains to be achieved in advancing women’s rights.

Let the word go forth.

In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, along with the other drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, determined not to classify women as a vulnerable or special category of humans, which undermines the universality of human rights. But it was soon realised that the subjugation and oppression of women needed to be addressed through special treaties and committees.

Of course, even those instruments were not sufficient to advance the cause of women’s rights, at least not until Clinton galvanised the world into action in 1995. With her speech she reminded the world that when women’s rights are not achieved everyone suffers – and that women’s rights need to be at the core of all human rights activism.

There is much work still to be done – but Clinton’s legacy, like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, is one that can never be undone.

Run as a woman…

Clodagh Harrington, DeMontfort University

For this 2016 renaissance, there are three lessons Hillary Clinton must learn from her first attempt.

Don’t make assumptions. In 2008, even the most casual observers were betting on Hillary to be the Democratic nominee. That the role would be snatched by a contender who barely anyone had heard of was almost unthinkable. So this time round, the logic must be to take nothing, not least the voting public, for granted – even if Paddy Power is currently offering 11/10 odds on her winning the election.

Try not to appear too regal. It’s difficult when, like Madonna, one is clearly the queen. But as Hillary has learned, it is surprisingly easy to be beaten to the throne. There is no-one to trump her now on brand recognition, experience, and capacity to raise staggering amounts of money. All of which are fantastic assets for a candidate – but not everyone is clamouring for another Clinton. There was a Bush or a Clinton in the White House continuously from 1980 to 2008, and 2016 could well be a Hillary-Jeb race. So grace and humility will go a long way with an electorate weary of stagnancy and stalemate.

Run as a woman. In the 2008 primary, Hillary did not make much of her gender, clearly fearful of being perceived as “angry”. But thought there has been much progress in the US since Clinton became the first female partner at the Arkansas Rose Law Firm in 1979, there is still much to be done to achieve real gender equality. Remember that the US is still the only western nation that offers no guarantee of formal monetary compensation for maternity leave.

But Hillary is in a paradoxically liberating position; at 67, this really is her last shot at the presidency. Now is the time for her Sisterhood of the Travelling Pantsuits“ to top the 18 million cracks of 2008 and shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling at last.

…or don’t?

Russell Bentley, University of Southampton

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign flopped for a number of reasons, but many say that she would have done better if she had presented herself as the female candidate. There is no strong evidence for that, or any real indication it will make a difference this time around. 55% of women voters turned out for Obama in 2012; Clinton just needs to keep them on side, and she can do that without making herself the “female candidate” above all else.

The things Clinton did wrong in 2008 were more fundamental. She simply didn’t recognise the threat Obama represented; instead, having worked the Democratic Party machine, she behaved at all times as the nominee the party was delivering unto the faithful. The Democrats who most disliked her deeply resented this sense of entitlement; many of them also decided they didn’t like her clothes, her hair, her voice, her laugh. That dislike, of course, was definitely gendered.

Having failed to recognise the Obama threat, Clinton also failed to play an effective ground game. She was out-smarted by a canny community organiser who knew how to work neighbourhoods for support. That would have happened even if she had put gender front and centre.

She could also lose this way for a more powerful reason: it would colour every element of her candidacy. Her foreign policy experience would be the foreign policy experience of a female candidate. Her economic policies would be scoured for evidence of what they mean for or say about women. Her opponents and the media will inevitably fixate on her gender, but running principally as a woman would exacerbate that and could cloud the message of her policy statements.

Too often, the US flatters itself that its barriers to gender equality have been largely dismantled. If Clinton makes her candidacy about her gender, she will help dispel that obvious fiction – but she could also make her own path harder.

The Conversation

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