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Hillary Clinton’s Legacy Is Huge and Lasting

Far from being a historical footnote, she's a pathbreaking pioneer.

JEWEL SAMAD/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s new campaign memoir, What Happened, has poked the festering wounds in the Democratic Party, but should also force a reckoning with her political legacy. Some pundits have said that because of her historic defeat to Donald Trump—and, eight years earlier, to Barack Obama—her impact was minor. “Hillary Clinton is a footnote in history,” Glenn Thrush declared in Politico right after the election. “Clinton will forever be known as one of the worst closers in political history, a woman who was never capable of selling a wary public on herself, on account of her own shortcomings and paranoia or perhaps as a result of a sexism so ingrained in American culture that women as well as men suffered from it.” Presidential historian H.W. Brands agrees, recently telling the Columbia Journalism Review, “If I write about the 2016 election ten years from now, I’ll spend a lot of time on Donald Trump and only a tiny bit on Hillary Clinton. If I get into detail, I’ll say that the email questions, the FBI’s timing, feminist fatigue, and the like simply highlighted her central weakness.”

These dismissive judgments aren’t just wrong, but betray a fundamentally flawed view of what’s important in politics. By their logic, only winning matters; only those who reach the White House leave a legacy. In his capacity as a historian, Brands has criticized this mentality, noting in a 2012 lecture, “We have a cult of the president, where we make too big a deal of the president.” Political history is made by all sorts people, of course—businesspeople, generals, intellectuals, activists, members of Congress, and, yes, sometimes losers. Clinton’s lifetime of political achievements and failures ensure that she’ll be anything but a historical footnote.

Some of the biggest political legacies have been left by losing presidential candidates. William Jennings Bryan never became president, losing three elections as the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Yet Bryan is better remembered than the two candidates who defeated him, William McKinley and William Howard Taft. It was Bryan who made populism a force in national politics, laying the groundwork for the progressive agenda that the Democrats would pursue through Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and future leaders. According to Georgetown historian Michael Kazin’s 2006 biography A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, the battles Bryan fought in 1896 “set the Democrats on a course that led away from their laissez-faire past and toward the liberalism of the New Freedom, the New Deal, and the Great Society. To demand that government control the money supply, tax the rich, and defend the right to strike was not quite a blueprint for the regulatory state. But the platform officially declared that Democrats were in favor of beginning to redistribute wealth and power in America. In rhetoric at least, the party has never gone back.” To the extent that Democrats have embraced economic populism, Bryan continues to have a permanent legacy. (Bryan is also remembered for a less favorable reason: He was the evolution-denying prosecutor in the famous Scopes Trial.)

Two of the biggest political losers in American history were Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972, yet both candidates were enormously transformative. Goldwater initiated the takeover of the Republican Party by the conservative movement, and pioneered the use of racist dog whistles that have characterized Republican politics to this day. McGovern, famously caricatured as the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” made social liberalism one of the pillars of the Democratic Party. He actively courted feminist voters, campaigning on increasing the participation of women (and minorities) in the party. In 1968, women made up just 13 of delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Thanks to changes pushed by the McGovern campaign, that number reached 40 percent in 1972. While the measure to include gays rights in the platform failed that year, McGovern stated that he considered it a civil rights issue, a first for a presidential candidate.

Before McGovern, there were many socially liberal Republicans (like the married-and-divorced Nelson Rockefeller and birth control activist Margaret Sanger) and socially conservative Democrats (anti-abortion Democrats were numerous enough that McGovern had to accept one, Senator Thomas Eagleton, as his running mate). After him, the two parties began sorting themselves along social liberal lines: the Democrats becoming the home of pro-choice feminist and LGBT activists, while the Republicans became the party of the religious right. McGovern was one of the key figures in setting the Democrats on their path.

Hillary Clinton can properly be seen as deepening the revolution that McGovern started, making the Democrats the party committed to outright feminism. It’s one thing for a male candidate like McGovern to make the case for women’s rights, and quite another for a woman to run for the highest office in the land on openly feminist grounds—and win a major-party nomination. In her 2008 run, Clinton had been reluctant to emphasize her pathbreaking role. “Clinton chose to sidestep mention of her gender altogether in both the videotaped announcement of her candidacy and in an email to supporters, in which sex was sucked out out of an oblique call to make history,” Rebecca Traister noted in her book Big Girls Don’t Cry. In the 2016 campaign, Clinton explicitly made it clear that one of the purposes of her run was to break the biggest glass ceiling in American life.

Perhaps the losing candidate that Clinton most resembles is Al Smith, the first major-party Catholic candidate for president. Smith was thoroughly drubbed by Herbert Hoover in 1928, in a race defined by anti-Catholic bigotry. “If you vote for Al Smith,” the minister of the largest Baptist church in Oklahoma City thundered from the pulpit, “you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.” Even in his loss, Smith remade the Democratic Party. Just four years before Smith ran, in 1924, a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan failed at the Democratic National Convention. After Smith won the nomination, the Democrats were clearly the party of ethnic pluralism. The white ethnic voters Smith brought into the fold became the mainstay of the party with the victory of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and they stayed loyal for decades to come.

When Shirley Chisholm ran her pioneering campaign for the presidency in 1972, becoming the first black woman to win delegates in a major party presidential race, she cited Smith as a precursor. “The United States was said not to be ready to elect a Catholic to the Presidency when Al Smith ran in the 1920’s. But Smith’s nomination may have helped pave the way for the successful campaign John F. Kennedy wage in 1960,” Chisholm wrote in her 1973 book The Good Fight. “Who can tell? What I hope most is that there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male.”

Barriers are never broken all at once, but as with the journey from Smith to Kennedy, they require the work of pioneers who fail to win, but clear a path nonetheless. Chisholm can properly be seen as helping prepare the way for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And Clinton herself has helped clear a path for any future woman running for president. Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood, made this very argument before Hillary Clinton had announced her first bid for president. “Often, the pioneers who clear the paths do not have the honor or privilege of running along them,” Wattleton told Traister. “If it’s not Mrs. Clinton who becomes our first [female] president, she will have made an enormous contribution.”

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued that Donald Trump is America’s first white president—that is, the first president for whom “whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power” and “whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.” Similarly, Trump is America’s first male president. The masculinity of previous presidents was a given, but for Trump, running against the first major-party female candidate in American history, being male was central to his case for the presidency. This is was a man who bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” who said Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever,” and who called his daughter a “piece of ass,” among many other disgusting comments. Just as one could not vote for Trump without implicitly condoning his racism, one could not vote for him without implicitly condoning his misogyny.

Of course, Clinton has dealt with sexism ever since she emerged as a national political figure. As the first working woman to become first lady, she upended longstanding gender norms in a way that threatened many male chauvinists. This only intensified when Clinton became a senator and presidential hopeful. “There’s just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing, and scary,” Tucker Carlson declared in 2007. (Unsurprisingly, he was a big Trump supporter in 2016.) But the most impressive thing about Clinton was that, faced with an historic wave of misogynistic hatred, she didn’t back down. Her campaign portrayed her as a “fighter” and she truly lived up to it. When Trump tried to physically intimidate her by creepily stalking her on the debate stage, she stood her ground.

There are some important aspects of Clinton’s legacy that Democrats would do well to abandon. Clintonian neoliberal centrism is on the way out, as the party moves toward Bernie Sanders’s economic populism. But there are also things Clinton did right, which any future progressive politician would do well to imitate. She not only embraced feminism as a political cause, but made it central to her campaign. She refused to be bullied by sexist opponents. And let’s not forget, she won the Democratic nomination as a woman—indisputably a major feat, no matter what detractors say about her fundraising or name recognition.

After Al Smith’s loss in 1928, it took the Democrats 32 years to nominate another Catholic. The path from Clinton’s defeat to the first female president is likely to be shorter. It’s perhaps no coincidence that there’s already a historically strong crop of likely women contenders for the Democratic nomination, including senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. Sooner or later, America will have a female president, and she will be properly grateful to Clinton for helping clear the path. That’s a significant legacy that no loss, however devastating, can ever tarnish.