Maybe you’ve heard about this: Hillary Clinton, who used to be secretary of state and before that a senator from New York and is (of all things) married to a former president, is going to run for president herself! If elected, she would be the first female president in the history of the United States. Unless we decide to count Nancy Reagan, which looks like an increasingly viable hypothesis as we learn more about her husband’s mental condition. Anyway, it’s quite a story.
It’s possible that the least surprising candidacy in political history would be an even bigger story if it hadn’t all happened before. Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to imagine Hillary’s rollout week being any bigger than it was. One aspect of her immense and distorted cultural significance is the extent to which she drives us all crazy. She drives people who hate her crazy, on both the right and the left – for different reasons, and sometimes the same reasons – but beyond that she afflicts all of us with a strange combination of amnesia and déjà-vu. As my former Salon colleague Rebecca Traister, a forceful and unapologetic Clinton booster, mused this week in her cautious but celebratory essay for the New Republic, “Doesn’t it feel like she’s already been president?”
That is precisely Clinton’s biggest obstacle in her second run for the White House, not Elizabeth Warren or Martin O’Malley or whichever Republican is left standing at the culmination of their highly entertaining clown-car act, but our collective Hillary fatigue and Hillary derangement. Haven’t we already run the entire gamut of emotions associated with having a female president, and with having this one in particular? Going through with it in reality -- slogging through the endless process of nominating her, electing her and swearing her in, and then subjecting ourselves to four years or eight years of Clinton and her husband back in the White House -- that just feels like overkill. Or, to some of us, like a bad dream that refuses to end. (Sorry, Rebecca!)
But hey, this is America. Overkill is pretty much our jam. Just ask all the random villagers in Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan whom we have droned into oblivion in the uninterrupted secret war of the Bush and Obama years, vigorously embraced and defended by Hillary Clinton. Wait, that’s right -- you can’t ask them, because they’re dead. And also because we’re not meant to know what places we have attacked and why, or whether the people in those places were killed by accident or on purpose. I’m sorry; am I ranting? Am I going off on an irrelevant tangent, when the real subject is the amazing symbolic breakthrough of putting a woman in the White House? Or is the real story about how nothing is more important than preventing some right-wing lunatic from appointing other right-wing lunatics to the Supreme Court, because that’s the end point of all political aspirations and the steel door that slams down on all political discourse? I have trouble keeping that straight.
We begin to approach the spirit of apology and contradiction that informs all discussion of Hillary Clinton, and that infects even her most ardent supporters, in this week of peak Hillary-mania, with a tone of pathos and anxiety. Amid a fervent and deeply personal essay thrumming with the possibility and pain she finds in the Clinton candidacy – an essay that embraces Clinton supporters with the first-person plural – Traister pauses to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons not to like Clinton or vote for her. Despite the bitter aside in the paragraph above, I want to follow suit by acknowledging that good and decent people will find valid reasons for supporting Clinton, especially given the kind of Republican opponent she is likely to face next year. I’m not here to praise Hillary or to bury her: the first is unnecessary and the second impossible. I’m also not here to provide false hope for the so-called American left, which is far too mesmerized by the debased spectacle of presidential politics and is about to get patronized, bamboozled and bulldozed one more time, and I’m definitely not here to shill for the Democratic Party, whose current identity crisis is embodied with eerie precision in the personage of Hillary Clinton.
As I’ve already written, Clinton’s dominant position within her party, and the fact that she seems to have driven all plausible opponents from the field without a fight, is a symptom of the profound corruption and dysfunction of American politics. But Clinton herself is not really the problem. I’m less interested in the question of whether Clinton can be defeated (probably not) or what kind of president she will be (not much worse or better than the current one) than in her outsized and crazy-making symbolic potency, which has almost nothing to do with her cautious political identity as a creature of the “Washington consensus,” a follower of public-opinion polls, a foreign policy hawk and a defender of institutional power in every form.
We’re big on bigness here in America, and big on overkill. We’re also big on historical amnesia and doing the same thing over and over again and gritty, inspirational comeback narratives. Hillary Clinton’s latest reinvention – to call it Hillary 2.0 would be a severe undercount – offers all those things in spades, and if many of them would seem to contradict each other, well, we love that too. Hillary contains multitudes, or at least has worked out a strategy of appearing to contain multitudes, which may come to the same thing. Even after three-plus decades in public life, she remains a distinctively divisive and enigmatic figure, understood by different people in different ways, who has been careful never to attach herself too forcefully to any philosophical or ideological perspective.
Viewed through the prism of conventional politics and policy questions, Hillary Clinton can seem like a Zen koan with no solution. Last week the Economist ran an editorial headlined “What does Hillary stand for?” (it’s behind a paywall) and two days later Dan Balz of the Washington Post asked “Why does Hillary Rodham Clinton want to be president?” I would argue that those questions answer themselves: Clinton wants to be president because she is an ambitious politician and that is the apex of American political life; she stands for the things that will get her elected and enable her to wield power. But I suppose I'm a cynic. In practice, both articles went in circles and answered the questions with more questions, an advanced symptom of Hillary-related mental disorder. Is she hungry enough, Balz wonders, so descending into a pitch-perfect parody of semiotic horse-race punditry? Will voters find her “authentic and empathetic”? “Is she rusty or sharp, chilly or warm?” (“Rusty and warm” sounds to me like the winning combination for 2016. No one will ever accuse Ted Cruz or Rand Paul of being rusty or warm.) Balz did not bring up the presence or absence of fire in the belly, but I’m sure someone else did.
We’ll hear much more from that species of political reporter about how baffling they find Hillary, and about which adjectives best capture her demeanor in artificial encounters with the denizens of Iowa and New Hampshire, in which journalists outnumber the locals. People who already hate Hillary, or love her, feel no such bewilderment. But their exaggerated and defensive emotions are made noticeably crazier by the question of her gender. Which, as Traister correctly asserts, will be both an asset and a liability in the coming campaign. I personally suspect the balance has shifted on that issue, and that the enthusiasm Clinton generates among millions of women will outweigh the bitterness of Fox News troglodytes. But that’s easy for me to say, right?
We’ve had nearly a year of left-wing complaints about the impending Clinton coronation, along with earnest but feeble efforts to coax or coerce Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or damn near anyone with a pulse and a less appalling record into the race. It would be overly simplistic to blame that on a misogynistic urge to destroy the most prominent woman in American political history, and not just because of the Warren factor or because there are plenty of progressive women who don't love Clinton. But one aspect of Hillary-derangement syndrome on the left is a subterranean conflict over the nature and status of feminism, and about the way that movement’s most mainstream and corporatized branch – the one epitomized by Hillary Clinton – has abandoned its most far-reaching or revolutionary social goals and become the central pillar of the Democratic Party. In other words, there is a convoluted sense in which Clinton’s left-wing foes -- like her right-wing foes! -- actually do hate her more because she’s a woman.
This week the tide turned, and it was a veritable tsunami. It might have felt, for a while there, as if Clinton’s fans and defenders were in retreat. But they could afford to hold their fire while the haters aired their grievances, and not just because Clinton has broad institutional support from Democratic apparatchiks and elected officials, along with a pipeline to the deep-pockets funders on Wall Street and in Hollywood. Bitter as this pill must be for many progressives, what we saw this week was that it’s not just the money and the connections. Hillary Clinton is widely loved and widely admired, and possesses tremendous cultural resonance. Hey, I'm not happy about it either. Sometimes the truth hurts.
Of course this week’s social-media rollout and the waves of conventional media coverage and commentary were calibrated far in advance. But such strategies can easily backfire or go awry, and this one was executed masterfully. All that time Clinton’s advisors spent absorbing and emulating the innovations of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was not wasted. Lena Dunham was in! Kerry Washington was in! Without especially needing or wanting to, I heard about how excited they both were within a few hours of Clinton’s official announcement. Whether you get your news from the New York Times, the TV networks or Twitter, you were barraged with celebrities, Democratic politicians, columnists and other “thought leaders,” all celebrating this dramatic (if completely manufactured) turning point in the story of our republic.
Pro-Clinton voices in the left-identified or feminist media, led by Traister in the New Republic and Kate Harding of Dame (another former colleague I like and respect), mounted a none-too-subtle counterattack against lingering left-wing resistance. It’s OK for progressives to embrace Clinton’s historic candidacy, they argued, even if we don’t agree with her about everything. Harding’s case is framed in much starker and more defensive terms than Traister’s: She’s perfectly happy to support Clinton on the basis that she will be the first president “who knows what it’s like to menstruate, be pregnant, or give birth,” almost without reference to other issues. Writing two days after Clinton’s announcement, Harding says, “I am already so tired of hearing progressives act like it’s all so boring and old hat. The first fucking woman who can win is running for president, and she is at least nominally a liberal. Can we not allow ourselves to get excited about just that?”
She neglected to mentioned that “the first fucking woman who can win” is running for president for the second time, which accounts for a good deal of the jaded reaction she observes. But there’s something defiantly ballsy (sexist metaphor intended!) about Harding’s combination of anger and evident unease, about the awkward negative construction and “nominally a liberal” and the clear implication that she wishes the first potential president to have first-hand knowledge of menstruation were less of a Wall Street tool and cultural-values troll. Harding’s raw emotion, her insistence that the content of Clinton’s candidacy is hugely important no matter how flawed the vessel may be, clearly spoke to and spoke for a great many women. It provoked me to think as deeply as I could about the roots of my own attitude about Hillary Clinton, and about our exaggerated cultural response to her in general.
We have many months ahead to wrestle with all the things about Hillary Clinton we don’t understand – to unpack her closely guarded ideology and her weathervane-driven policy positions, decode her wardrobe choices and gauge her all-important levels of “authenticity” and “relatability.” Robert Reich, who has known Hillary since both of them (and Bill Clinton) were classmates at Yale, insists that she is driven by powerful values, but does not disclose exactly what those might be. I'd like to know more about Hillary Clinton’s semi-closeted evangelical faith, which would seem to shed light on many otherwise puzzling aspects of her life and career -- and which makes some of her liberal supporters uncomfortable. Clinton’s big launch week, with its remarkable outpouring of support from all kinds of women in all kinds of contexts – many of them acknowledging, like Harding and Traister, that electoral politics is a deeply flawed enterprise and Hillary Clinton a deeply flawed candidate -- reminded me of something that’s easy to forget amid the bipolar currents of Hillary-related craziness.
I would never have presumed to tell African-Americans how to feel about the Obama campaign in 2008, and the same principle applies here. This will be a big moment for women, however it ends up and however unhappy some women may be with Hillary Clinton herself. More than enough misogynist energy will flow forth from Fox News and the Republican Party during the campaign ahead; those of us who want to express our misgivings about Hillary Clinton from the other side (especially if we fit my demographic profile) would be well advised to resist the slide into sneering condescension, and enlightening the ladies about exactly why they’re wrong.
I don’t have to like Hillary and I definitely don’t have to vote for her, since I live in a state that has not been contested since 1988 and whose only role in presidential politics is that of bottomless bipartisan cashbox. But I don’t get to tell women what Hillary Clinton means to them, or claim that her gender is no big deal, or say that because we’ve had female presidents on TV and because Hillary has been running for president since forever, electing an actual woman after 43 guys and 226 years doesn’t matter. I might be better off listening to what they have to say instead. It’s only the first step out of Hillary derangement syndrome, but it’s the biggest.