Diarmaid Ferriter: Will the real Hillary Clinton please stand?
Former US secretary of state faces uphill challenge in upcoming presidential election
‘Hillary Clinton kept falling between different stools in 2008; her narratives fluctuated as the young Obama swept the carpet from under her.’ Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Will Hillary Clinton be able to find a consistent and credible campaign narrative in her quest to become the first female president of the United States? That was a serious challenge in 2008 during her first attempt, and the challenge remains.
There has already been much comment on the contrast between the start of her 2008 effort and what was witnessed last week, with the new emphasis on feeling others’ pain, the need to listen to “everyday Americans” and the road trip in the “Scooby” bus; no more helicopters, it seems, for the time being.
In 2008, Clinton kept falling between stools; her narratives fluctuated as the young Obama pulled the carpet from under her. Clinton has been such a part of the American political establishment for so long now that she has a variety of angles to make her pitch from, but that too is problematic: which Hillary will be seen and heard?
Towards the end of her term as secretary of state in 2012 she suggested she was more at ease with who she was – “there is a certain consistency to who I am and what I do”. She felt perceptions of her had also evened out: “I think people have finally said ‘well, you know, I kinda get her now’.”
Much is made of this supposed newfound comfort by her vocal supporters, but an interesting question is whether such assuredness will become the defining aspect of her campaign or whether, as they obsessively track opinion polls, her advisers, spinners and focus group dissectors decide such security will be characterised as arrogance and insist she changes course.
What does she stand for?
Her admiration of Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady from 1933 to 1945 and human rights advocate, has often been mentioned, but will she follow, or be allowed to follow, one of Roosevelt’s best known pieces of advice: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticised anyway.”
At the onset of her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, she appeared wooden and dull but then sought to spin her way out of trouble by emphasising her humanity. Her tearful appearance the day before the New Hampshire primary in January 2008, when she spoke of the opportunities the country had given her and expressed the desire not to see “America go backwards”, was regarded by some as a cynical master stroke and by others as a genuine glimpse of the real, and often warm Hillary.
More importantly, perhaps, was what she said after her surprise victory in New Hampshire: “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice.”
Her supporters roared with approval, but in truth, her advisers were divided about how Clinton should present herself, and they squandered a lot of money in looking for an answer.
To what extent should Clinton play the gender card and suggest that public reaction to her campaign will be a barometer of society’s attitude towards women generally? After her defeat in 2008 she referred to “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”, but is she a really a groundbreaking feminist? The National Organization of Women in the US has praised her in the past for her “long history of support for women’s empowerment”, but others have rubbished this.
A recent article in Jacobin magazine, a voice of the left in the US, portrayed her as the embodiment of “corporate feminism” and an unabashed supporter of an aggressive US capitalism and foreign policy: “In the US, feminism is often understood as the right of women – and wealthy white women most of all – to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power.”
Her opponents will also make much of how trustworthy she is and the belief of many, articulated witheringly by the late writer Christopher Hitchens, that she is “indifferent to truth”.
Too much of what Clinton has written and said in the recent past has been contrived and neutral to avoid giving her opponents ammunition for this second bid for the presidency. Amid all the hysteria and financial obscenity of a US presidential contest – it is estimated $1 billion will be raised to finance her campaign – taking the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt might actually make her campaign interesting.