Hillary Clinton’s campaign will put women and children first
Suzanne Goldenberg: campaign to focus on gender equality and low wage earners
The finest moment in Hillary Clinton’s political life – so far – arrived on a hot June day in 2008, when she finally took ownership of her place in history as the woman who came so painfully close to shattering that “highest, hardest glass ceiling”.
It was of course too late that day: Clinton was delivering her concession speech to Barack Obama after an extraordinary presidential election campaign.
But on Sunday, seven years after that defeat, Clinton came back to try to smash that ceiling open for a second time - announcing her 2016 campaign for the White House with the launch of a new campaign website and a clear message: “I’m running for president.”
And this time Clinton confidantes and campaign watchers agree that the candidate who until that glass-ceiling moment struggled against the idea of making history as a woman during her 2008 campaign will put gender at the forefront of her presidential race this time.
In the 2016 race, Clinton will put women and children first, casting herself as a champion for low wage earners - both themes central to her campaign launch video. Confronting a familiar sexism that is straight out of a Mad Men episode, she already seems to have adopted a new persona: grandmother-in-chief.
“Becoming a grandmother has made me think deeply about the responsibility we all share as stewards of the world we inherit and will one day pass on,” Clinton wrote in a new epilogue to her memoir, Hard Choices, released last week. “Rather than make me want to slow down, it has spurred me to speed up.”
Clinton made several mistakes in the years and months leading up to Sunday’s official launch – charging exorbitant speaking fees, telling the Guardian she wasn’t “truly well off”, shunting her secretary of state email to a private server. But between now and November 2016 overlooking the importance of gender will not be one of them.
“It won’t be the same strategy that we saw in ’08, or at least in the beginning of the ’08 campaign, which was not really to raise the fact that there was any importance or significance to the election of the first woman president,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Centre for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“She is going to own the wise, smart grandmother,” Walsh said. “Embracing the title grandmother – rather than running away – makes her real, makes her human, makes her a more fully rounded candidate.”
The “grandmothers know best” strategy – already tested as a Twitter hashtag – could also help win over more traditional voters and, crucially, help inoculate Clinton, who is 67, against ageist tropes that are more likely to be slung against a female candidate.
On Twitter, she deployed the kindly, grandmother persona in February to chide Republican leaders for anti-vaccination comments.
‘I know there are still barriers and biases out there’
Clinton has been growing into her role as a feminist trailblazer since that heartbreaking concession speech in 2008 in a packed hall of the National Museum of Women in Washington. Gloria Steineim was in attendance, and women wearing baby slings alternately wept and roared in approval as Clinton, 17 months after the presidential campaign began, showed what kind of candidate she could be.
“When I was asked what it means to be a woman running for president, I always gave the same answer: that I was proud to be running as a woman but I was running because I thought I’d be the best president,” she said at the time. “But I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious.”
Her campaign had put almost 18 million cracks in that glass ceiling, she said. “The light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”
As secretary of state, Clinton championed initiatives about women and children, from combatting domestic violence to promoting corporate leadership, sometimes to the derision of the more conventional foreign policy hands. She incorporated meetings with female leaders in nearly all of the 112 trips and nearly a million miles she logged on the job.
She continued to push some of those projects at the Clinton Foundation, her perch for the last two years as she prepared for Sunday’s announcement. In one week alone, she delivered three speeches on women’s issues last month, briefly swapping out her Twitter avatar to endorse the “No Ceilings” report on expanding opportunities for women and girls.
Clinton has also not been above pulling the gender card to deflect from potential crises: last month, during the controversy about her use of a private server, she claimed the emails she deleted were about wedding plans for daughter, Chelsea, or “yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes”.
Even those on the outs with the Clintons, such as the former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, think the “grandmother for president” strategy could be a winner.
Richardson, a member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet, ran against Hillary Clinton in 2008, and eventually endorsed Obama. The two have not reconciled, he said. But, Richardson told the Guardian, “she is going to have a very favourable current of being the first woman president, and I think women in droves are going to move in that direction.”
The one thing Clinton must still watch out for, Richardson said, was disappearing beyond a wall of handlers as she did in 2008: “I just worry that this big entourage that she always travels with – all the people with iPhones and all the security – gets in the way of her mixing one on one with voters.”
Trapped in a classic double bind
The folksy Clinton of #GrandmothersKnowBest is very different to the one who launched her campaign from the floral upholstery of a living room sofa, via web video, back in January 2007. Clinton, in that iteration, was all about toughness and experience.
“I’m in it to win it,” she told her first campaign meeting in Iowa later that month.
For too long, Clinton’s 2008 campaign team saw gender only as a huge liability, anticipating – wrongly, as it turned out – that her biggest challenge would be overcoming gender stereotypes that she would be too soft-hearted for the Oval Office.
Her strategists soon squashed any semblance of that. As the campaign went on, and Clinton marched on to her defeat, she threatened to “obliterate” Iran, knocked back shots of whiskey in bars, and rustled up political allies, such as the former senator Evan Bayh, willing to testify to her “testicular fortitude”.
Not that any of it worked. Clinton was trapped in a classic double bind: too conventional to tap into that yearning for change and yet – despite all of the effort to seem like just one of the guys – subjected to the most outrageous sexist abuse.
Late-night comedians joked about her outfits. South Park did an episode about a nuclear device hidden in her vagina. Television commentators called her a “she-devil”, accused her of “pimping out” her daughter when Chelsea Clinton came out on the campaign trail, or moaned that she reminded them of their first wives in divorce court.
Male hecklers screamed at her to iron their shirts, and then there was the merchandise – novelty shops with Hillary Clinton nutcrackers and toilet bowl scrubbers.
Seven years on, it’s unlikely such biases have disappeared completely – even in the Lean In era. In Clinton’s case, when she is so well-known after a quarter of a century on the public stage, it may be hard to separate negative reaction to the candidate herself from broader currents of sexism.
But already there has been commentary about Clinton’s age and post-menopausal women, criticism she has used her grandchild as a stage prop, and may even have engineered Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy for political gain – not to mention the unspecified biases articulated by Bill O’Reilly over at Fox News: “There’s got to be a down side to a woman president.”
Clinton’s handlers were right, then as now, to think she would face discrimination as a female candidate. But the 2008 campaign was in such a defensive crouch about gender that it failed to realise being a woman could also be a considerable plus.
Voters in 2008 didn’t want the experience Clinton offered; they wanted the epoch-making change that Obama exemplified.
“With the benefit of hindsight, there were probably more opportunities to be taken to highlight the change a Clinton presidency would represent – as opposed to presenting her as more of an institutional figure,” Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and strategist brought in to manage Clinton’s campaign during its final weeks, told the Guardian in 2012.
“I think some of the people who were running her campaign at the time were concerned about the possibility of scaring off men in the general election. But it’s clear that as a primary candidate there was, I think, a greater sense of energy and excitement that could have been generated from the historic nature of her candidacy.”
And when an exhausted Clinton for just a moment let that veneer of toughness slide and shed a tear at a campaign event in New Hampshire, it actually helped her.
“Tearing up in New Hampshire was a very good moment for her – it helped turn the primary around,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic political consultant for the Al Gore and John Kerry presidential campaigns.
“It was not at all consistent with the theory she was running on – that she had to be strong at all times, that she couldn’t show any weakness,” Shrum said. “I didn’t think it showed weakness. I think it showed humanity.”
Clinton won that New Hampshire primary – a victory that allowed her to stay in the race. She went on to lose several more rounds to Obama, but as she fought on, defying calls to drop out of the race, Clinton gradually turned into an inspirational figure.
Women didn’t see themselves reflected so much in Clinton’s achievements, it turned out. But for older women in particular, the everyday humiliations she suffered on the campaign trail – and Clinton’s refusal to quit the race despite Obama’s insurmountable lead – resonated with their own experiences in the workplace.
That sense of identification did not extend as readily to under-40 Democratic women voters, who leaned towards Obama. “For younger women, it didn’t speak to them in the same way,” Walsh said. “They saw Barack Obama’s candidacy as historic. They didn’t see Hillary Clinton running as historic ... It didn’t hit them in the same way.”
But Clinton, freed of expectations by her impending defeat, eventually won wider respect and admiration. “She was a great candidate at the end of the primaries. Terrific!” Shrum said. “She couldn’t win any more but she had become a very good candidate.”
Now it’s time for Clinton to pick up where she left off. Seven years on, many of the issues previously sidelined as women’s concerns – minimum wage, equal pay, paid sick leave – have risen to the political mainstream, and Clinton shows every intention of trying to make them her own.
In every presidential election since 1980, women have turned out to vote in greater numbers than men. There will be many million more cracks to make before shattering that glass ceiling but Clinton is on her way.
Suzanne Goldenberg is the author of Madam President: Is America Ready to Send Hillary Clinton to the White House?