What’s the deal? A number of intelligent women I call friends who call themselves Democrats and social progressives keep telling me they “just don’t know” about Hillary. They can’t get excited about her or her candidacy, they’re not sure they like her, they admit she is, of course, far more qualified than any of the other candidates across the political spectrum, but she just doesn’t inspire them. At this point in the election cycle they’re not willing to commit to supporting her, not even in conversation, much less with a contribution or their vote. Even if it came down to a choice between Hillary and Donald Trump, or Hillary and Ted Cruz, or Hillary and Marco Rubio? I ask, incredulous. And again, letting me down softly, they say they “just don’t know.”
I’m puzzled. What’s not to know? The woman has a record a mile long and she’s running on it. She’s been a champion of the marginalized in our society and especially women and children since high school. She has thought critically about the issues challenging our democracy since college, when she first took the stage at her Wellesley graduation to confront Senator Edward Brooks about the Vietnam War. She was a game-changing First Lady navigating, albeit with a shipwreck or two, the expectations of the office and her place in the forefront of the women’s movement for personal and professional independence. It is no stretch whatsoever to observe that she was the most thoroughly prepared and hardest-working U.S. Senator from New York — a post to which she was handily re-elected — and, again, a thoroughly-prepared and hard-working Secretary of State who restored many of our country’s frayed relationships across the globe during her tenure. She is also a once-failed candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who learned some hard lessons about 21st century politics, social media and likely-voter algorithms eight years ago. She was by all accounts, an extraordinary mother to Chelsea, and she is appropriately ga-ga over her granddaughter.
That’s her record. But then there’s her past. And it’s obvious it’s this past that is casting a pall over any future my friends are considering, especially her standing-by-her-man even as she was saying she wasn’t that kind of girl, as if there was a political calculus that trumped her pain and any personal calculus about what was best for her and for her family. As if she has been tainted, not by Bill’s scandals so much as by the perception of politics itself as tawdry, unseemly, even, dare we say it, unladylike. But wait just a minute. Bill Clinton was the guy people pointed to in New Haven when he was in Law School and said, “See that guy? He’s going to be president of the United States someday.” It wasn’t Hillary Rodham. Hillary was only his wicked smart law school classmate and girlfriend. She didn’t have presidential ambitions; they didn’t exist for women in 1960 or 1970, not even in 1980 or 1990. She hadn’t grown up being told, much less believing, that if she was good and smart and worked hard, she, too could one day be President of the United States; she was a girl. And girls her age and mine were still fighting to get into the Ivy League, to be admitted to medical and law and business schools, to get a job without starting as a secretary, to procure birth control. The idea that Hillary was, from the start, hell-bent on being President and would pursue it without regard to her personal and/or political integrity is totally without basis in fact and reality. That said, however, one can readily imagine the idea — and political and/or presidential ambitions — developing as she was pulled into the vortex of a very public political life, initially on the small stage that was Arkansas and then in the White House. Her proximity to all the late 20th century power players Bill cast in his administration and worked with and/or against in Congress had to give rise to a sense that, “Hey, I could do that!” Just like many of us — no matter how smart, well-educated or independent — she had detoured from her career path to follow her husband where his career took them. Just like many of us, she must have decided it was her turn now. Just like many women whose dreams have been deferred, whose marriages have disappointed, who wonder which sacrifices were worth it and which were not, she re-examined what was possible. She might have done so in the context of what exactly one does after serving as First Lady; there aren’t many role models. Or she may have simply decided public service would be far more effective and rewarding than the practice of law or a seat in the board room. I don’t know.
If, however, Hillary was not motivated by a blind ambition my friends — and curiously, even some of the most ambitious women I know — find distasteful, she nevertheless has entered politics eyes wide open and she’s playing the game to win. Which means she has done some things the purist in me, the idealist, the social critic, the journalist, and the not dispassionate observer wishes she had not. Stupid and indefensible things, really, like spinning that tale about using a private email server because she just didn’t want to mess with two devices. And voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq. And thinking her globe-trotting as Secretary of State and Bill’s as head of his Foundation wouldn’t create at the very least the suspicion of a conflict of interest or impropriety. She has skated too near the edge. She has cut some messy deals. She has been loyal to a fault and just as often, unnecessarily ruthless. Politics has beat her up and she has fought back. We understand this in a man; we curse it in a woman. We call him politically savvy and a realist, a leader who gets things done. We call her untrustworthy.
And maddeningly, because that’s the way Republican strategists have framed the race from the very beginning, the label sticks. It undermines Hillary’s candidacy. It plants seeds of doubt, even in the minds of women across the generations who one would think would be thrilled to see a strong, competent woman become President of the United States. See Gail Sheehy's column in The New York Times. It raises “concerns,” and gives rise to my friends’ “just don’t know’s.” This insidious, relentless assault on Hillary’s “character” is her Swift Boat, and to date she has been no more able to defeat it than John Kerry was in 2004. I think she needs to change course before she loses this election.
I know voters who are willing to sacrifice democracy’s highest ideals — justice, peace, equality — to hate and fear, Citizens United and the NRA chiefly because they hold Hillary accountable for or at least complicit in the sins of her husband, both personal and political. Her message of rational, competent service and leadership isn’t getting through because her extraordinary record is inextricably bound up in her storied past. So she needs to move beyond it. Running a brilliantly disciplined campaign designed to bring in the money and get out the votes, a campaign that would under almost any other circumstances be destined for victory, isn’t good enough; it’s not doing the job. Demonstrating that she’s the smartest one in the room, the best-prepared, the most nuanced, isn’t working. It reminds me of parenting, in a way. You can be a good parent by doing everything you’ve learned you’re supposed to do and doing it well. But if, with all your goal-setting and discipline and organization and sense of duty, you merely fulfilled your role and failed to be your wholly present self in the relationship, you really weren’t so good a parent as you might have been. Similarly, simply knowing what needs to be done and doing it very well doesn’t make Hillary as good a candidate as she can — and must — be. In parenting, you don’t often get a do-over. But campaigns re-boot all the time. And it’s time.
We need Hillary to be more fully present. Not in a role, but as Hillary Rodham Clinton. She needs to articulate a positive new vision for the future that rises above the quotidian of national politics, that goes beyond both her record and her past to reach out to us as women, that silences the hate and fear of the demagogues. She needs to convince us that our hopes and dreams and ideas and character and yes, our votes, matter to her and to our nation. She needs us to care that “one of us” has the opportunity to be President of the United States and that her presidency can have profound ramifications for us as women and as Americans and for future generations. She needs to show us how to get outside of ourselves and beyond our self-interest to identify and nurture a common good. She needs to come out from behind the campaign of big money and big numbers to speak to us. She needs to share her higher self so as to inspire us to share ours. Like every mother’s child, her campaign needs her heart and soul, her very presence, and her vision for the future.
My friends who “just don’t know?” They need to know. I need to deliver this new message. There is far too much at stake.