Love her or hate her, there is no denying that Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most accomplished politicians in American history, from becoming the first woman to accept a major party’s presidential nomination in 2016, to an impressive resume of holding major state and federal roles and developing a reputation for effectiveness and hard work in said offices.
Whilst nobody has forgotten that Clinton lost the November 2016 US presidential election to Donald Trump in an enormous upset, despite winning the national popular vote comfortably by three million ballots and arguably losing because of an unconstitutional midnight-hour external intervention, the lack of serious, seasoned and tested Democratic alternatives to President Biden for 2024 if he opts not to seek re-election has persuaded me to consider Clinton once again becoming the Democrats’ standard-bearer.
This question is perhaps reinforced by the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, a clear assault on women’s and reproductive rights, issues that Clinton has dedicated her adult life and public service to, and most Americans know it.
Hillary Clinton has a long and distinguished career behind her, full of experience, hard lessons, an unshakeable work ethic and the ability to deliver results in intense political environments. From an advocate at the Children’s Defense Fund to a legal clinic for the poor and disadvantaged, to coordinating Arkansas education reform to First Lady of Arkansas and then the US, to US Senator to Secretary of State and the barrier-breaking first female presidential nominee.
She would be a commanding force on the world stage, and a notable foe of Vladimir Putin (who illegally helped engineer her 2016 defeat), in a time of major geopolitical upheaval from Ukraine to Taiwan, the global economy to the far-right and the reshuffling balance of world power. A firm and steady hand in a time of substantial uncertainty and change.
Clinton is an expert at developing political relationships with adversaries that earned her a reputation for hard work, efficiency, bipartisanship and compromise as a US Senator from New York. She built innumerable strong relationships on Capitol Hill with Republicans, which would serve her invaluably in an era of political polarisation and rigid partisanship.
She was similarly suited in 2016, but never got the opportunity.
Even Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham wrote the tribute for TIME to her in 2006, saying she was ‘sought out by her colleagues to form legislative partnerships’ and that her ‘high-profile status, combined with a reputation as a smart, prepared, serious Senator, creates real influence’. This, from one of Trump’s most steadfast congressional allies. There is still no doubt that Republicans would block most of her agenda if they had the opportunity to do so, but she is absolutely more likely to be capable of negotiating with Congress to deliver, especially on smaller issues, and remain true to her principles and priorities.
Like any President with a divided government, she would have little choice but to shelve much of her ambitious agenda if the Republicans had congressional control, but she recognised that serious compromise on major issues would generate political capital and goodwill, which she could then expend on smaller, but no less important, issues in a more modest but consistent flow of achievements.
President Obama’s confrontational congressional approach and government by executive action following the GOP takeover of the House in 2010 and later the Senate too in 2014 was seemingly a miscalculation; pushing through enormous legislation like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) before the midterms with his large 2008 majorities, despite their infuriation of the opposition, stunted all goodwill when the Republicans retook control.
This is key to the argument that a Clinton Presidency now, with its steady hand and ability to bring in Republicans on bipartisan issues and generate political capital and goodwill to expend on more controversial problems, would be a great remedy to the tumult left over from the Trump era and the systemic problems plaguing the US at present. In this instance, her nature as an insider is surely an asset: she knows the intricacies of the system and has spent her life trying to reshape it.
Her knowledge of the system by no means moderated her ambitious progressivism. Becoming the first female President is something hugely inspiring in itself, but the 2016 Democratic platform was the most progressive in history, from huge (and green) infrastructure investments, free public college tuition for families earning below $125,000, a path to citizenship for immigrants, building on the ACA, LGBT advances, gun background checks, decisive climate action, equal pay, overturning Citizens United and campaign finance reform, a $12 federal minimum wage and a plethora of other commitments. As she put it, she is a progressive that likes to get things done.
Turning now from national to party interests however (and arguably back to reality), there is the inevitable question of whether Clinton could conceivably win, both the nomination and the general election, even if she did decide to run again.
Putting aside the admittedly slim likelihood that she does run once more, Clinton would undoubtedly face a stiff primary challenge from the progressives again as well as in all probability from moderates too, who would doubt her electability, which was for her in 2016’s primary season a powerful line of attack on Bernie Sanders, whom she claimed would not win a general election. She would struggle this time around to clinch the nomination. Assuming she did, she would surely face a fractured convention at the onset of the general election, an exacerbated state of the division seen at the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia.
Fairly or unfairly, Clinton remains intensely polarising. Her favourability ratings remain underwater and sit at 40%, with disapproval at 43%, not ideal for a potential candidate. They were in this region in the 2016 cycle and have somewhat improved since her defeat as Trump floundered and her forewarnings of him materialised, from refusal to accept electoral loss to the Supreme Court.
As President, if she produced the results she is capable of, she would surely rebuild some lost trust with many key demographics, especially white working class voters. They were her base in the 2008 primary against Obama, yet were her strongest detractors in 2016 as she assumed the Obama Coalition and they felt left behind. Paradoxically, her strongest 2008 demographic sealed her fate in 2016 by handing Trump the key Rustbelt states.
I optimistically posit her ratings may improve in office as they always do. She was struggling in the 2008 campaign, and when voters saw her experience and expertise at work as Secretary of State, her approval averaged 64-66% in office. Granted, Secretary of State is not the White House, but this trend unique to her was replicated in the Senate, as First Lady and beyond. She is dragged down when campaigning, and her ratings shoot back up when she is actually doing a job. Clinton herself has marveled at the phenomenon, perhaps a consequence of the enormous Republican machine that sees her as enemy number one which is hard at work during election cycles.
It may be in the country’s interests, but potentially not in her party’s interest for her to run again, even if she wins.
There is nonetheless some hope in that 2024, given the global environment, is more likely to resemble the 2020 election than 2016, where a steady hand in Joe Biden was sought by independents over Trump’s explosive nature and torching of norms during the pandemic, whereas Trump’s outsider and disruptive nature was a major asset in the populism of a discontent electorate back in 2016.
She may indeed sit like a spider in a huge web of Democratic officials, allies and donors, but many may be more reluctant to offer support so readily this time around, especially in a contested primary. She would not be able to clear the field this time.
In my observation, her best bet would be to emerge as an unabashed champion for constitutional rights, which would allow her to draw on her legal career, her record of women’s rights (in the wake of Roe v. Wade and threats to LGBT legal precedent), and civil rights through criminal justice reform. A short, clear, definitive economic message would be critical to the Midwest. Double down on and realise her key 2016 pledges and values (likely more attractive in this environment), as a major pivot would merely give credit to critics who would denounce a huge flip-flop and shatter her credibility further.
Doing the same thing again and expecting different results is perhaps insanity, but not when the fundamental context is entirely different. A week is a long time in politics as they say, never mind eight years.
It is worth mentioning though, for those who particularly value history in determining the plausibility of something, there is precedent – whilst he would turn out to be severely ethically lacking in his conduct in office leading to his resignation, the simple fact remains that Richard Nixon was the Republican presidential nominee in 1960 and ran against and lost to John F. Kennedy in an incredibly narrow race, losing the national popular vote by just 112,000 (0.17%) and the Electoral College. He ran in the gubernatorial race for his home state of California in 1962, and lost once more to Democrat Pat Brown, before a short retirement. He made his infamous comeback in the 1968 election, winning the GOP nomination again eight years later and going on to win the general election and the rest is history.
It may not be the custom for defeated nominees to seek the Presidency again, and even less common for them to win, but it certainly is possible.
I am of the belief Hillary Clinton is the best President America never had.