Who thinks Hillary Clinton is the nastiest woman in the world? The American Spectator once called her ‘the Lady Macbeth of Arkansas’ while US News and World Report described her as ‘the overbearing yuppie wife from hell’. But that was back in the nineties. Surely such vitriol is a thing of the past? No. The founders of ‘StopHillaryPAC’ say on their website that they want to ‘save America from the destructive far-left liberal cancer’ that Mrs Clinton represents. Do they wish her actual harm? Well, they plan to ‘STOP Hillary dead in her tracks’ but, you know… just politically.
They’re not the only ones. The similarly named group ‘StopHillary2016’ is equally keen to deal out at least a metaphorical death, as is the Republican dirt-grubbing group AmericaRisingPAC. Republican National Committee leader Reince Priebus said on a radio show last year that AmericaRising was searching the record as far back as it could: ‘I think that there’s a lot of rough stuff coming out on Hillary that . . . you know, it doesn’t just come out of thin air. It comes from somewhere. And sometimes, it comes from us.’
When the networks CNN and NBC considered making documentaries about Mrs Clinton’s extraordinary career, Priebus blustered that these would be, in effect, campaign commercials for the next Democratic candidate. He then orchestrated passage of a Republican resolution to boycott the networks as carriers of the 2016 pre-election debates if they went ahead with the documentaries (they didn’t).
How don’t Republicans love Hillary? Let me count the ways. She has a long record of being pro-choice on the abortion question and of favouring gay marriage. She favours a comprehensive national healthcare system, much stricter gun control, effective trade unions, an amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants, and deficit spending in recessions by a strong federal government. But what Republicans hate most of all is that she’s the overwhelming favourite to win the White House in 2016.
Mainstream pundits credit Mrs Clinton with improving her public image during her four years as Obama’s Secretary of State and achieving the aura of an elder statesman. The Hillary haters, by contrast, argue that she was a hopeless diplomat. They single out the 2012 killing of Chris Stevens, America’s ambassador to Libya, as a national disgrace, and say it was her fault. The terrorist attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that September offers a rich vein for conspiracy theorists to mine, and there are plenty of politically motivated miners ready with their picks and shovels. Clinton herself accepted responsibility for the tragedy and admitted to a lack of foresight, but no serious evidence supported her enemies’ claim that she was recklessly naive or negligent about the Libyan situation. When she went to hospital with a concussion near the end of her term of office, Tea Party publicists sneered that she couldn’t take the political heat and was really suffering from ‘Benghazi Flu’.
Women have come a long way in public life even since 1990. It’s no longer permissible to say that you don’t like Hillary because she’s a woman, but there are ways of finessing the point. Some Tea Party writers argue that by standing by Bill despite his White House shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky, she sullied the image of American wifeliness. She was openly political from the beginning, where most first ladies adopt uncontroversial good causes. Only Eleanor Roosevelt, another liberal ex-first lady, has provoked such passionate opposition from the right.
The real issue is that Hillary Clinton is such a powerful frontrunner. Current polls among Democrats and independents give her about 73 per cent of their votes. Joe Biden, the current vice-president and (in theory) a likely successor to Obama, gets 10 per cent. Ironically, Democratic ‘progressives’ aren’t too sure about Mrs Clinton because they think she’s too much of a centrist, too well connected with the various establishments of government, corporations and the military. They’re keen on Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s markedly more liberal. On the other hand, they share their Republican antagonists’ view that Clinton, if she does in fact run for her party’s nomination, will be very hard for any Democrat to beat.
The Republicans are making matters no easier for themselves, because every time they find a potential new David to challenge the Hillary Goliath they have, almost as quickly, to abandon him. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is the latest casualty. No sooner had he developed a golden reputation for high-mindedness and skill at bipartisanship than his presidential aspirations turned to dross. Rivals leaked the story that his lieutenants created traffic jams on the overburdened highways into New York City in retaliation against a local Democratic mayor who would not support him. Result: weeping schoolchildren stuck in their buses and a very hard-to-remove blot on Christie’s escutcheon.
Hillary herself, meanwhile, is in a terrific position. She has been avoiding the question of her candidacy for a year now, ever since she stepped down from State in favour of John Kerry. She hasn’t been an active politician since 2008, when her apparently certain ascension to the White House was snatched away by Obama. For the last five years she’s been able to pose first as a loyal Obama lieutenant, then as a political elder, standing above the fray.
If and when she returns to the arena, she’ll calibrate her statements to suit the moment. Her potential Democratic rivals, by contrast, are current office-holders who have to make statements and take positions every day, some of which are likely to come back to haunt them. Although she carries plenty of baggage from her days in Arkansas and in Bill’s White House, it’s baggage so old by now as to seem a little threadbare — no longer likely to damage her cause.
That’s an impressive advantage, all the more gratifying for someone who has no need to worry about name recognition. Hillary’s antagonists are doing much of her work for her — keeping her name in the news while telling cheap and implausible stories about her. Almost another three years must pass before the next presidential election. But will she run? Groups like ‘ReadyForHillaryPAC’ keep up a steady patter of seductive murmuring, telling her every day how marvellous she is. It’s hard not to believe that in the end Mrs Clinton will be like Byron’s Julia, who, ‘whispering “I will ne’er consent” — consented!’
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, Georgia. His book A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism will be published in March.