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There's Nothing Inevitable About Hillary


Today Hillary Clinton is expected to officially announce her candidacy for the presidency of the United States. There is no breaking news here. There has not been a minute of the past eight years when we have not been assured (or threatened) that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, her presidency even, is an inevitability.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Everything. Anything. Anything and everything.

Hillary Clinton has loomed so powerfully in the American consciousness for so long that it’s hard to remember how delicate, how combustible, how ultimately improbable the project of electing her president is likely to be. The false aura of inevitability and the general familiarity we have with Hillary—doesn’t it feel like she’s already been president?—make it too easy to assume that we’ve got this.

But the truth is that this country is 230 years old and has had 43 presidents and not a single one of them has been a woman.

As we face that daunting reality, I harbor some hopes about how we—the media, the electorate—might treat this contest differently than we did the last one in which Hillary ran.

I hope we won’t reduce every question about gender and Clinton to easy binaries: “Did she win because she’s a woman?” Or, “Did she lose because of sexism?”

The fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman is inseparable from the fact that she is “this woman” (the parlance of those who work strenuously to distinguish their distaste for her from quotidian misogyny). Her ideas, her strategies, her personal and professional choices: They’ve all been informed and shaped by the fact that she is female in a male world. 

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to feel antipathetic toward her and her candidacy. She’s a Clinton, she’s hawkish, she’s inauthentic, she’s a centrist, her ties with Wall Street are far too tight, she didn’t condemn her husband’s infidelities as sexual harassment. But what is simultaneously true is that she became a politician in the context of having lived her life as an anomaly: She has climbed first and higher than any other within the nation’s most exclusively male power structure, a trajectory especially likely to shape a woman born at a time at which the only plausible path toward political—let alone presidential—power was through marriage, and then through convincing millions of people that she is not too liberal, too feminine, or too castrating.

None of that justifies Clinton’s bad decisions or means you’re bound to like her. And, crucially, none of it necessarily leaves her at an unequivocal disadvantage: Being a woman, and confronting sexism, is going to help Clinton win votes and support at very same time that it’s going to make her victory more difficult. Gender’s impact on politics and on people is exceedingly knotty and often contradictory.

Which is why we should stay away from easy-bake answers, and push instead for thoughtful examination of a complicated person and the complicated country in which she’s running for president.

I hope we can get over the conviction that every time someone notices what Hillary’s wearing, it’s diminishing.

Like it or not, clothes and appearance are part of how political candidates communicate. Self-presentation is tightly tied to electability, and men are not let off the hook. Ask Barack Obama about his mom jeans, John Edwards about being dubbed “The Breck Girl,” John Kerry about his Botox injections. It’s far more instructive to break down the nuances of how appearance is critiqued and not just the reality that it’s going to be. 

For example: All those instances of men being teased for their looks involve them being feminized! That’s the part that’s interesting … and sexist. When debate questions about child health care policies and the storage of radioactive waste get rejected in favor of one about whether Hillary prefers diamonds or pearls? That’s sexist. And when an opponent, asked to name one positive and one negative about Hillary, compliments her husband as the positive and rags on her jacket as the negative? Well, that’s John Edwards, keeping it repellent since 2008.

But simply noting that Hillary is wearing some fetching shade of teal? Acknowledging that her wardrobe choices must account for the fact that she has cleavage, something vanishingly few of her predecessors have had to tackle? That’s not inherently sexist, no matter what her campaign tells you in an effort to draw your outraged support.

An honest reckoning with the unique aspects of dressing like a woman on a trail built for men has its own value and its own genuine pleasures. One of my favorite memories of covering 2008 is a Clinton rally in Pennsylvania with my two-year-old nephew in tow. We were standing miles from the podium, and when Hillary came on stage, clad head to toe in some raspberry number, my nephew clapped joyously, exclaiming: “Elmo!” That was great. We’d never before had a candidate who wore anything other than greys and browns, a candidate who might reasonably be mistaken for Elmo. It was funny; it was giddy; it was its own kind of history. 

I hope, while acknowledging it’s a real pain in the ass that she’s a Clinton, we can stop treating Hillary as part of an American political dynasty.

For generations, the primary path to power for women with any political ambitions (and even some without them) was through those who came to political power easily: men, usually husbands. This has been especially true of “first” women in American politics: The first woman governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected in 1925 to replace her husband after his death. The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Wyatt Carraway, who filled the Arkansas seat of her dead husband in 1931. Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith, who took her late husband’s House seat in 1940, went on to become senator and the first woman ever to have her name placed into nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention.

It was practically preordained that the first woman to come close to a major party nomination, if not to become the first female president, was going to have family ties to a man with executive branch experience.

That doesn’t make Hillary’s current political position dynastic in the way that, say, Jeb Bush’s is. There are big differences between being born into a position of political privilege and marrying someone who becomes politically powerful. Wives have historically provided the support to make presidents’ careers possible; no dynastic configuration has ever landed one in the Oval Office herself.

Last month, The New York Times ran a fascinating and distressing look at the statistical probability of paternal succession in presidential politics, as well as in sports, business, and entertainment. The economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz found that, based on recent history, “an American male is 4,582 times more likely to become an Army general if his father was one; 1,895 times more likely to become a famous C.E.O.; 1,497 times more likely to win a Grammy” and that it is “8,500 times more likely a senator’s son” will become a senator himself.

But based on historical precedent, here is how likely it is for a president’s wife to become president herself: zero times more likely. It’s never happened before.

So while it is fair to feel critical of the advisors, strategies, and policies deployed by both Hillary and Bill Clinton during the years they have each wielded political power, it is not fair or accurate to suggest their familial circumstances are equivalent to those of the Bushes, the Roosevelts, the Adamses, the Kennedys, or the Cuomos. If you want to compare them to the Tayloe Rosses, the Wyatt Carraways, or the Chase Smiths, that’s cool. But it doesn’t pack quite the same punch. And that’s part of the point. 

I hope we will get over being shocked that Hillary is less popular when she’s running for president than when she’s just lost the nomination or when her husband cheated on her. 

Among the most worrying things about Hillary Clinton not facing a serious primary challenge from within her party is that in the almost three decades she’s been in the national eye, a distinct pattern has emerged: Americans love her when she is vulnerable and scrappy and loathe her when she is powerful and coasting. This speaks to some depressing truths about our national tastes in women—they appeal to us most when they are the least threatening—but also to Hillary’s own instincts and behaviors. She is at her worst—too careful, too canned—when she feels she has something to lose, and at her rousing best when she feels she’s got nothing to lose. Recall that she reached the most appealing rhetorical heights of her career in a moment of defeat. From now on, she observed in her concession speech, “it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States.”

It will also be unremarkable, at various points over the next 19 months, to read blaring headlines about her cratering campaign, her dipping numbers. And, yes, those numbers may fall so low that she will lose; they may not. Just don’t be surprised; this too was preordained. 

I hope we will not forget that whatever disenchantments, infighting, or cynicism take hold over the next 19 months, there is an enormous amount at stake in this candidacy and in this election.

For one thing, there are several Supreme Court seats very likely to turn over in the next presidential administration. Do not listen to anyone who tells you that partisan gridlock, the rightward-lean of the Democratic party, or Hillary’s own brand of galling centrism add up to there being no difference between political parties or between candidates: it matters very much to the future of this country who the next president will be. 

It also matters very much—far too much, I fear—to women, and the story of their political progress in the United States, whether or not that president is Hillary Clinton. I have written before that I wished other Democratic women would run against her; I still wish that. I wish she were not still the first and only; I wish she hadn’t come to mean so much; I wish she didn’t carry such a terrible symbolic load. But here we are, facing the risk—particular both to Hillary’s own weaknesses and to the pattern of American presidential power that has so far cleared room only for her—that she could lose. And if she does, that loss will mean far more than it ever should. 

It’s all part of how the system is rigged, against Hillary Clinton and against her former foe and boss, Barack Obama: Create only one space at the table; make people who’ve been barred from that table fight it out against each other instead of in opposition to the powerful 42 who’ve come before them; set them up to stand alone and incompletely for the enormous, marginalized populations they represent; watch their individual fates carry outsized messages to the world.

It’s a terrifying thing, living through history. So here goes nothing. And everything.