Politics

Staying Power: Clinton is Ready for Her Balloon Drop

She’s universally known, but only now comes her chance to make a lasting mark on history

Clinton in a visit to the Capitol earlier this month

It’s a comparison with serious potential to rattle presidential partisans in all corners: Hillary Clinton has now been on the national scene longer than Richard Nixon was.  

And here’s just one of the many important distinctions between the two, who arguably stand as the most polarizing and dogged political professionals each party has produced in the postwar decades:  

Nixon was nominated five times by the Republicans for nationwide office, and won four of those contests during his years in the spotlight of American public life. Clinton has been a central figure in four Democratic presidential campaigns in the past quarter-century, but until this week she has never enjoyed a convention balloon drop of her own.  

[ Full Coverage of the Democratic National Convention ]  

Clinton will accept the 2016 presidential nomination of her party, in other words, embodying a remarkable set of paradoxes: She is as well-known as anyone with ambition in public life, and has been for the better part of three decades, and yet she is only now being formally launched into the ultimate crucible of public service.  

Everything fawning or flattering that can possibly be said about her has been articulated many times over, and so has everything insulting or condemning. She has been held up ceaselessly as an avatar of what’s good about our politics, and at least as often as an emblem of what’s evil about our politics. She’s been the most admired woman in the world for 20 years in a row, and yet no Democratic nominee in the history of modern polling has had higher negatives at the start of a general election campaign.  

[ Hillary Clinton and the Dream No Longer Deferred ]  

And she has complicated her own kaleidoscopic qualities by rebranding, repositioning and relaunching her public persona perhaps half a dozen times.  

Along the way, she’s been from Chicago, Little Rock, Chappaqua and Embassy Row. She graduated from high school as a Goldwater Girl and from law school as a McGovernite. Her earliest career was advocating for defenseless children and her most recent job was advocating for the world’s most muscular superpower. Her first government work was prosecuting in the Watergate scandal but her advancement in government has been complicated by having to defend herself against scandals from Whitewater to Benghazi.  

She was the proto-feminist first lady of Arkansas, who cost her husband re-election to the governorship by refusing to adopt his last name as her own. She was the unorthodox presidential candidate’s wife, who said she wasn’t about baking cookies and “standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Then she was the humiliatingly wronged spouse on a global stage who helped save Bill Clinton’s presidency by sticking with him.  

[ What Eight Years of Senate Votes Say About Clinton ]  

She was the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley, one of the nation’s premier women’s colleges; the first woman partner at the Rose Law Firm, one of the oldest and most prestigious legal practices in the South; the only first lady who’s had a West Wing office and a formalized administration policy-making assignment; the only first lady who’s ever stood for an elective office; the first female senator from New York; and the first woman to win a presidential primary.  

She was the driver of one Democratic administration’s health care policy and another Democratic administration’s foreign policy. In between she spent eight years in the Senate amassing a solidly left-of-center voting record while at the same time pursuing legislative deals with an array of right-of-center Republicans.  

Her biography, in the end, is as remarkable for its experiential range as for its gender-barrier-breaking consistency.  

Along the way she’s always proven to be more popular when she was in positions of prominence than when she was seeking them. While she was living upstairs in the White House during the Clinton impeachment saga in 1998 and at the end of her time as secretary of state in 2012, two-thirds of the public had favorable impressions of her. But during her first Senate bid in 2000, her first presidential run in 2008 and for much of this highly volatile campaign, solid majorities have viewed her unfavorably.  

[ Hillary and Her Odd Policy Bedfellows ]  

And now, after all those head-spinning twists and turns, comes her arrival in Philadelphia to officially break through the penultimate “highest, hardest glass ceiling” in American politics, the phrase she famously coined after coming up short eight years ago. This time, 96 years after women nationwide were given the constitutional right to vote, she will become the first woman ever nominated for the White House by one of the major political parties.  

The historic nature of the occasion affords her perhaps the last — but also probably the best — opportunity to reintroduce herself as the person who merits election as the 45th president of the United States.  

[ Roll Call's 2016 Elections Guide: President ]  

And then she will have just over a 100 days, a little more than 14 weeks, to reinforce that final first impression and make it stick, at least through Nov. 8.

Changing Labels

   

Her most fervent followers and her most passionate despisers have adopted the same shorthand, and it’s the same seven letters she’s now claimed as her brand. She’s become nothing but Hillary to almost all Americans, no last name any longer required.  

The tag line that comes after that, however, has been a work in progress for two decades. Over the course of her long career, she’s felt compelled by circumstance and political anxiety to make constant shifts in rhetorical themes and the slogans for summarizing them.  

[ David Hawkings Whiteboard: Inside Clinton's Voting Record ]  

“These things go in cycles, and I have been surprised that the Hillary that I knew and for whom I care doesn’t seem to be in much evidence on the campaign trail,” says Gordon H. Smith, an Oregon Republican who runs the National Association of Broadcasters and describes a deeply collegial relationship with Clinton during their eight shared years in the Senate . “I don’t know if it’s the way they are handling her or presenting her. The printed word and the visual picture are not matching.”  

The title of Clinton’s first book, “It Takes a Village ” (1996), urging a strong government safety net under America’s children, became her unofficial motto in Bill Clinton’s second term. She billed herself as “more than a first lady” as she started seeking the Senate.  

Her first presidential campaign tried on an array of double-barreled catch phrases (“Working for change, working for you,” “Ready for change, ready to lead” etc.) before settling on the wonkish commitment to providing “solutions for America,” in not-so-subtle contrast to Barack Obama’s boldly vague 2008 promise to embody “hope” and deliver “change.”  

The summary statements have been similarly peripatetic this time. She launched her candidacy in April 2015 promising to wage “four fights” for the country, but the battle plan proved to be inconsistent. (At different times, the quartet included building a 21st century economy, strengthening families, fixing the dysfunctional political system, defending core national values, protecting against global threats and revitalizing the democracy, all things she still talks about, to be sure.)  

“Fighting for us’’ was the dominant rationale for supporting Clinton during the height of primary season, but that was often partnered with (or supplanted by) commitments to provide “real results” and “make America whole”  by “breaking down barriers” and working to “build ladders of opportunity.”  

And then, in late spring, the slogan became “stronger together,” meant to encapsulate her twinned political imperatives of unifying the Democrats after a combative primary season and wooing independents and even Republicans turned off by Donald Trump’s overtly divisive messaging. (The wisdom of retaining that catchphrase got questioned after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, because it was the same motto claimed by the vanquished Remain campaign.)  

All along, of course, the Republican candidate has stuck with his vow to “make America great again” — a message that, its implicit nativism and targeted appeal to older white men aside, gets solid points for the sort of punchy lack of ambiguity at the heart of Trump’s political persona.  

[ The Democratic Party's Hillary Clinton Problem ]  

In a similar sense, Clinton’s regularized motto modifications have underscored a central critique of her public personality: Cautious to a self-defeating fault, she has used too many pollsters and too many focus groups in an attempt to become all things to all voters, and in the process too many of them are left without sufficient confidence about who she really is other than inauthentic and calculating.  

In a speech last month, Clinton name-checked this central political liability during an unusual moment of public self-reflection. “I personally know I have work to do on this front: A lot of people tell pollsters they don’t trust me,” she said. “You can’t just talk someone into trusting you; you’ve got to earn it.”

Dueling Investigations

   

The next day she got some great news for combating her poor reputation: A special House committee created by the Republicans ended its two-year investigation by saying it found no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton surrounding the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.  

That report effectively eliminated one of the two big potential investigative impediments to Clinton’s candidacy. The other officially went away one week later, but in a much more politically problematic fashion.  

The Justice Department said it would not prosecute Clinton for mishandling classified information while relying on a private email system as secretary of state. But FBI Director James B. Comey, after declaring no criminal indictment was warranted, delivered a scathing indictment of Clinton’s judgment. She was “extremely careless,” made many incorrect public statements about her email practices and may have eased spying by hostile forces, Comey said, and someone in a government job would face serious punishment for what she did.  

Even Democrats inclined to her side conceded that repudiation highlighted Clinton’s other political Achilles' heel: She comes off as arrogant, tending to behave as though normal rules of propriety and political best practices don’t apply to her. And that manifests itself in a habit of dodging or prevaricating whenever uncomfortable questions get asked about her behavior.   

For most of the time her nomination was almost universally viewed as a foregone conclusion, and yet it steadily devolved into something maddeningly inconclusive for her until the final handful of primary season contests. Only then were the leftist, anti-establishment Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and his passionately populist followers stopped by hard mathematical reality , wrought with the help of the Clinton campaign’s brute organizational fortitude and its rarely-lost-its-cool operating style, even though her team spent $25 million less than his did.  

The lingering suspicions about her temperament will be accompanied into the fall by worries within the party base about Clinton’s ability to tackle the unique dynamic of this election. Having become unequaled as a personification of the well-heeled political elite, she must persuade an electorate newly energized by angry and marginalized outsiders that she’s a more worthy change agent than Trump, the ultimate political interloper.  

The challenge has bedeviled her all year, during which her grinding, hardly graceful ascent has been fueled much more by a sometimes wooden tenacity than by any grandiloquent aspirations.  

Whatever slogan she’s chosen, her core message has been about the values of competence, work ethic and résumé — an especially tough sell for someone who by her own account is not a masterful wordsmith, gifted orator or easygoing natural at the interpersonal skills of retail campaigning with strangers.  

Forming relationships with professional politicians of both parties, however, is something she has excelled at. That’s why many Republicans she served with in the Senate say nice things about her, and why she’ll arrive at the convention with the support of six out of every seven superdelegates, the elected officials and other Democratic insiders who have a strong hand in deciding the nominee.  

“In our business there’s supposed to be an obligation to work with everyone,” says Christopher J. Dodd, former Democratic senator from Connecticut and party chairman who’s now Hollywood’s top lobbyist. “She was wonderful at this in the Senate. She was a natural at it. She enjoyed it. And whatever else people might say about her presidency, she’d always work at it.”

White House Denizen

   

Her life story to this point has guaranteed she’ll forever be associated with two presidents more than any others: Bill Clinton, whom she married in 1975 in their bungalow near the University of Arkansas Law School; and Barack Obama, who outran her into the history books in 2008 and then unexpectedly placed her in the Cabinet’s most prestigious seat .  

But if she wins this fall, she’ll have an instant connection to several other predecessors. She would be the first Democrat since Martin Van Buren in 1836 elected as the successor to a fellow Democrat stepping aside after two terms; the only former secretary of state elected to the presidency since James Buchanan in 1856; and the person with the longest senatorial tenure since Lyndon B. Johnson won in 1964.  

But more consequential than any of those historical oddities would be the very likely — if portentous — comparison with another long-ago Democratic president.  

Grover Cleveland , like Clinton, went for the White House after a rapid ascent to statewide office in New York and despite a familial sex scandal the GOP never tired of mocking. More importantly, in 1885 he was the last Democrat required to navigate a divided Congress at the start of his presidency — and his situation (a solidly Republican Senate and a narrowly Democratic House) led to a raft of confirmation standoffs and a record number of vetoes.  

All eight subsequent Democrats were able to work with like-minded House and Senate majorities for at least their first two years. But, absent an almost unfathomably huge electoral wave at her back this fall, the best Clinton could hope for would be a split 115th Congress — Democrats winning back the Senate but the House still under control of Republicans whose default setting would be against whatever she proposed.  

Such a reality would, almost inevitably, lead Clinton to go searching for a legislative success formula that sounds much closer to the “third way” centrism espoused by her husband than the liberal “revolution” promoted by her most recent nomination rival.  

While her policy priorities may have a populist tone, they’ll be less focused than the Sanders forces want on income inequality (a polarizing term of the first order) and more on middle-class adaptation for success in the 21st century economy (a concept with at least theoretical bipartisan appeal). If she wants to succeed as “a progressive who gets things done,” yet another of her 2016 slogans, then policy softball will almost certainly be the legislative game she seeks to play at the All-American level.  

“It’s going to have to be really small-bore stuff where there is any common ground,” says Geoffrey Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I think Hillary is largely despised by a lot of Republicans, so I would tend to think that, because the country is very divided, there really isn’t a politics of consensus anymore and at the end of the day, many Republicans would prefer to have nothing happen.”  

During her climactic address at the Wells Fargo Center, she will almost certainly call for boosting the minimum wage, spending to make college much more affordable, modernizing public works with an emphasis on environmental stewardship, curbing Wall Street’s riskiest behaviors, tightening of campaign finance rules and putting undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.  

But this potpourri of policy ambitions — carefully designed to keep her would-be base of union members, Latinos, African-Americans and youthful former Sanders supporters enthralled through November — probably won’t get as much attention as two things she’s been hoping to accomplish for years, which also stand out as perhaps the most viable of the longshot items on her to-do-list for next year:  

Clinton wants to create federal guarantees of 12 weeks of family leave for every worker, and another 12 weeks of personal medical leave, with the government paying two-thirds of current wages during the time away. She also aspires to a major federal investment in early childhood education, with a guarantee of pre-Kindergarten for all 4-year-olds and subsidies to cap care expenses at 10 percent of family income.  

Realizing just those dreams, of course, would require tens of billions of dollars in new spending, which almost certainly would mean more revenue. Clinton is surely open to raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, which Republicans will just as surely resist. But she has also signaled a willingness to negotiate on the sort of rewrite and simplification of the tax code that many in the GOP have been dreaming about for years.

Into the Breach

   

In the Senate, Clinton eschewed the sort of frontal assault on the Washington status quo that raises the profiles of many newcomers. Although her global celebrity would have guaranteed outsized attention to even the most unrealistically ambitious agenda, a series of incrementally left-leaning steps, taken with the aid of Republicans, was her chosen formula for a series of legislative accomplishments.  

Reprising that approach might not salve the electorate’s anger, but it might be her best hope for untangling the gridlock. And it holds the potential for Clinton to confound conventional wisdom and improve a relationship between the executive and legislative branches that frayed during the George W. Bush years and has been mostly shredded during Obama’s presidency.  

“When you are in a legislative environment, you want to get it done. You have to work with the other people in the room,” says Mark Pryor, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas who now heads the Venable law firm’s lobbying practice. “For years people talked about how she’s a big, crazy, left-wing liberal, but Hillary’s record doesn’t bear that out. She works with other people. She’s willing to take a half a loaf to make progress. That’s a sign of a very good legislator and a good president.”  

There are three big caveats to consider by those holding out hope that Clinton would succeed where Obama didn’t as a repairer of the partisan breach.  

First, several of her prominent Republican partners are no longer in office. (In fact, for better or worse, no more than 40 percent of the next Congress will have been in office long enough to remember Clinton as a fellow lawmaker.)  

That said, several of the “odd bedfellows” remain in the Senate. She collaborated with Pat Roberts of Kansas on a bill to better distribute flu vaccines; Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma to expedite payments to families of public safety officers killed in the 9/11 attacks; Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Susan Collins of Maine to improve respite care; and Johnny Isakson of Georgia and John McCain of Arizona on an auto-safety law.  

Probably her most famous such partnership, which resulted in expanded access to military medical insurance for National Guard and reserve troops, was with Lindsey Graham of South Carolina back in 2003, just four years after he acted as a prosecutor in the Senate’s impeachment trial of her husband.  

Second, Congress has only become more polarized in the years since she departed — a perception, shared almost universally by the electorate, backed up by such objective measurements as the rising share of floor votes that divide mostly on party lines. (During Clinton’s eight years in the Senate, most Democrats aligned against most Republicans on 56 percent of the roll calls. In the seven years since, that number was 67 percent.)  

“She was well-liked by Democrats and Republicans from the standpoint of relationships and collegiality,” recalls Tom Reynolds, a senior House Republican from New York who collaborated with Clinton as a senator and now is a lobbyist at Nixon Peabody. “But it was a different era from what we see now.”  

Third, there is Clinton’s own Senate record to contemplate. In the main, the 2,364 roll call votes she cast reflect the center-left, if slightly hawkish, ideology that’s comparable to her campaign positioning now. That volume of evidence is big enough to support the conclusion that Clinton was genuinely — albeit, only slightly — less of a monolithic liberal in Congress than Republicans portray. She voted with the Democratic mainstream far more often than not, but she strayed from party orthodoxy just frequently enough to create space on her liberal flank.  

Her Senate career overlapped exactly with the George W. Bush presidency, and she supported him 49 percent of the time. Only 11 Democratic senators who were around for most of those years bucked the Republican president more often.  

At the same time, only nine Democratic senators were more reliable party loyalists. On votes during her eight years when most Democrats voted the opposite way from most Republicans, Clinton went against the grain just 49 times — a party unity measurement of 96.5 percent.

Moment of Truth

   

“I have this old-fashioned idea that if you’re running for president, you should say what you want to do, how you’re going to pay for it and how you’ll get it done. I actually sweat the specifics because they matter,” Clinton said in a June critique of the Trump platform as overly vague.  

Clinton has never shown an interest in being melodramatically impulsive or naively idealistic. She has, in fact, said somewhat paradoxically that one of her main campaign promises is not to overpromise to the voters. But whatever she’s settled on as her presidential agenda, this is the week to roll it out with full fanfare.  

In this extraordinary bilious year, it will be as tempting for Clinton and her surrogates to focus on denigrating the “temperamentally unfit” Trump as it will be for the Republican’s team to concentrate on denigrating “lying, crooked” Clinton.  

Clinton says a formative childhood moment was her mother urging her “to never back down from a bully.” That advice will surely help guide her this fall, when she will get to create a template for female candidates for president in a general election against an opponent using his own set of templates for unprecedented bombast and provocation.  

But national political conventions are the ultimate modern-day infomercials for selling a presidential campaign package — and they almost always provide a bigger boon to the party when the takeaway message is a rationale for voting in favor of its nominee, not simply working against the other guy.  

That makes Philadelphia the moment where Hillary Clinton has her last, best opportunity to make a lasting good impression.  

Shawn Zeller contributed to this report.

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