Republicans turn pale with horror at the idea that Hillary Clinton might be the next president. She is the screeching harridan of their nightmares, made worse by her penchant for centre-left social policies. But they had better face up to the fact that no woman has ever been better placed to take the top job. Sixty-five now, she will be no older in 2016 than Ronald Reagan was when he moved into the White House.
In the next week or so, Hillary will stand down as Secretary of State. She tells interviewers that she’s looking forward a break from public life. But nobody who knows anything about her believes it. Before her concussion late last year, she completed a farewell tour constructed to remind everyone that she is the logical next leader of the free world. At a Saban Forum on 30 November, a schmaltzy video in her honour included talking-head tributes from Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Netanyahu. ‘I just have an instinct that the best is yet to come,’ says Blair, teasingly. The short film — available on Youtube under the title ‘Hillary Clinton’s first presidential campaign ad for 2016?’ — appears to have convinced the assembled delegates. ‘There was much chatter about what Clinton would do after she steps down from the Cabinet,’ said David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, ‘get a haircut; take a few weeks sleeping off jet lag … read the polls and the political landscape; do good works … Everyone had a theory of which they were a hundred per cent certain. There wasn’t much doubt about the ultimate direction. 2007-08 was but a memory and 2016 was within sight. She’s running.’
Websites are already selling ‘Hillary 2016’ sweatshirts. As the TV presenter Lawrence O’Donnell put it, ‘The reason it’s easy for you to get Democratic insiders to say she’s absolutely running is because she’s absolutely running.’ She is coy about whether she’ll run in 2016, but never gives a definite no. ‘Right now, I have no intention of running. I just want to make a contribution,’ she told Barbara Walters. She then added: ‘All doors are open, which is a wonderful opportunity.’
Hillary has always been a flinty campaigner, political to the bone, and ruthless. When sex scandals threatened to sink her feckless husband, she fought like a tiger to discredit women whose stories about trysts with Bill were true. Tales of her bad temper, screaming fits in the Oval Office, abuse of secret service officers, influence peddling, legal misconduct, and shady investment deals, dogged her for years. She rejected the traditional First Lady role and set out to be Bill’s co-president in the early 1990s. Abrasive, tactless and confrontational, her refusal to compromise defeated the national health care initiative she headed. Even feminists who wanted to support her shrank back in distaste at her thirst for conflict and her Wagnerian egotism.
In recent years, however, she has turned her reputation around, and is now more widely accepted than ever before. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll asked, ‘Overall, would you support or oppose Hillary Clinton as a candidate for president in 2016?’ Fifty-seven per cent said they’d support her, including 36 per cent who said strongly support. The polling guru Nate Silver calls her a ‘formidable’ candidate for 2016. ‘She might even come close to clearing the Democratic field of serious opposition,’ he says. And the bookmakers think it’s in the bag. Hillary is 2/1 to win the 2016 Democratic nomination, and the next most likely candidate is the 70-year-old Joe Biden at 12/1. While the Republicans have lots of potential contenders, who were preening themselves in last year’s convention, the Democrats look like being a one-woman party.
Whatever her personal shortcomings, Hillary’s resilience is remarkable. She endured the mortification of standing behind a husband who had obviously betrayed her during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Then, after a bracing run of success in the Senate following Bill’s retirement, she seemed all set to win the Democratic nomination in 2008. Nothing could have seemed less likely, as that year began, than the emergence of Barack Obama, a little-known freshman senator. He swept her aside in a primary campaign of euphoric idealism, taking the place she had thought was hers for the asking.
She swallowed her pride, put on a brave face at the convention, and campaigned hard for him that autumn. He repaid her loyalty, and did what he could to heal the intra-party breach, by giving her the principal role in the conduct of US foreign policy. Better to be Secretary of State than Vice-President, a possibility discussed at the time. She knew that Vice-Presidents moulder unnoticed unless the President dies.
She’s worked hard to smooth out her rough edges. Her work over the last four years has burnished her reputation, both domestically, in that she’s been a loyal team player, and internationally, in that she has done a good job as Secretary of State. It is one of the few senior offices mostly exempt from partisan bickering, in which mere politicians can mature into statesmen. Well-liked in Europe, she repaired the damage George W. Bush had caused by his contempt for the United Nations and for traditional allies who would not go to war.
She has been realistic about what the United States can accomplish, nurturing the possibilities of ‘soft power’ as well as flexing the big muscles. She responded cautiously to the Arab Spring, recognising that the US must now learn to live without the unsavoury despots it found so useful over the last few decades. She did what she could to discourage a pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran. She even accepted responsibility for miscalculating the situation in Libya that led to the US ambassador’s death there — although that hasn’t kept her from having to answer questions before Congress on the matter this week. After flying nearly a million miles over the past four years, and visiting 110 countries, she would, on entering the White House, have far more foreign policy experience than any president in American history. She has also used the office to transform her image from that of a sharply polarising figure into that of a conciliator.
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, seems keen on the idea of returning to the White House as First Gentleman. He campaigned so hard for Obama last year that he lost his voice. A few unfamiliar hours of near-silence descended on the republic before his larynx powered up again. He now declares himself delighted by the possibility that his wife will run for president, while hastening to add that the decision will be hers, and that he will support her in whatever she decides. Suggesting a variation on the myth of Sisyphus, he told an interviewer recently: ‘She’ll push a rock up a hill as long as it takes to get it up the hill.’
Their marriage, rich in incident, is already the subject of several books. It has been punctuated by furious rows, sometimes in public, and by recurrent crises, such as the time in 1990 when Bill, in love with another woman, begged Hillary for a divorce. She refused. On the other hand it has also been a union in which each partner has sometimes brought out the best in the other. She is said to have taught him the organisation and self-discipline to run major campaigns, while he has been her greatest champion ever since leaving the White House. Their joint biographer William Chafe even writes that ‘their partnership achieved a new intimacy and camaraderie when she stood by him in the face of his misbehaviour’ and that, strangely, ‘Clinton’s reckless sexual behaviour actually enhanced their personal ties.’ She certainly used each new humiliation during his presidency as political leverage, knowing that to divorce him would be to ruin him, and that her declarations of loyalty increased the debt he owed her. He has been paying that debt ever since.
If she decides to campaign for the presidency, she will not be easy to beat. She was immensely popular among women in the 2008 primaries, tens of thousands of whom continued to appear at her rallies even when it was clear she could not defeat Obama. Year after year she wins the annual ‘most admired woman in America’ poll, and many women, from both sides of the political spectrum, say they feel a special loyalty to her because she has so often been wronged. They admire her but they don’t particularly like her. Like such predecessors as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi, she seems to understand the relevance, for female politicians, of Machiavelli’s famous remark: it’s better to be feared than loved.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013