The media coverage of Hillary Clinton is a lesson in paradox: She’s the “most admired woman” in America, but no one is “excited” about her presidential campaign. She’s inevitable, but she can’t win an election. And even when she wins a debate, she still lost it.
This might seem like an indication of what we already know -- that the former secretary of state is an extremely polarizing candidate, whose very name is treated as a curse word or a reason to break out the Holy Water during the Republican presidential debates. The New York Times’ Mark Leibovitch wrote earlier this year that “divisive” has become almost associated with her very name: “Clinton has worn the polarizing badge more than any other politician since the word came into its unfortunate vogue.” But as Leibovitch argued, Hillary’s status as a divider is less a product of her politics than our own.
Leibovitch compared the phenomenon to “Bush derangement syndrome,” a term coined by Charles Krauthammer to describe “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay —t he very existence of George W. Bush.” But while the adverse reaction to Bush often bordered on hysteria, Krauthammer’s phrase comes from 2003 — when America was becoming deeply entrenched in a costly war that it became clear was founded on a myth. If Saddam Hussein was not involved in September 11, as Bush later admitted, the opposition to Dubya was less derangement than a deep sense of betrayal.
The biggest difference here is that before Krauthammer labeled Bush’s critics deranged, George W. already had three years of policies behind him. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, hasn’t been in the Oval Office a single day, and her presidency is already being treated by some as an unmitigated disaster. What's more, even members of her own party are getting in on the action. In a recent column for Salon, self-avowed millennial progressive Walter Bragman suggests that Clinton isn’t just a bad candidate -- she’s a threat to the future of the Democratic party itself -- and compares her to the second coming of Reagan, a corrosive force that will destroy the foundation's of American progressivism.
We’ve clearly moved past derangement. This is the time of full-on Hillary hysteria.
You’ve heard all of this before, of course. Hillary Clinton isn’t trustworthy. She isn’t “relatable” or “real.” (However we happen to be defining those words today.) Her so-called likability problem is ancient news by now -- the same nebulous idea that has dogged her all the way back to her time as First Lady. But while these criticisms would be perfect for your anti-Hillary poker night (“B-23 — ballbusting!”), they’re also indicative of just how much the aversion to her candidacy -- even among those on the left -- is removed from the realm of policy. Even in Bragman’s takedown of Clinton, he begins with her image: “Hillary’s personality repels me (and many others).”
Bragman reminds us that this isn’t a woman thing — he’s a feminist, after all — but it might not be overtly sexist as much as a byproduct of it, as well as the gender hangups of an earlier decade. Leibovitch points this out in his Times article, explaining:
“She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities.”
Clinton has continued to occupy that same space for the better part of three decades now, a one-woman culture war who plays the political game the same way the men around her do. But unlike those men, Clinton is chided for being “disingenuous” and a “political insider.” Everyone else just gets to do their job.
There are real reasons to have reservations about a Clinton presidency — including her oft-cited ties to Wall Street and her hawkish foreign policy — but how often are they the central force of the criticism lodged against her campaign? In an August poll, Quinnipac found that while political respondents felt that Hillary Clinton was “strong” and a candidate with “experience,” the words they most associated with her are “liar,” “dishonest,” and “untrustworthy.” These designations appear to be motivated by her Emailgate scandal and the ongoing questions about Benghazi -- but none of the myriad investigations into either have turned up anything close to a smoking gun.
During the first presidential debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested that the media coverage of Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state was an impediment to talking seriously about the issues. I admire Sanders — and count myself a supporter — but I think he stopped short of identifying the full problem. While Emailgate did indeed suck up much of the media's available bandwidth earlier this summer, with news outlets across the country combing through her correspondences, the ongoing obstacle is actually even bigger than Emailgate.
Our biggest issue to having a reasoned discussion about Hillary Clinton is that we haven’t the slightest clue how to talk about Hillary Clinton.
If America as a whole has a complicated relationship with the former First Lady, one segment of the population stands out. Research from the Wall Street Journal this November showed that Hillary hysteria is coming from one major sector of the population — white men. “Sixty-four percent of white men hold an unfavorable view of Mrs. Clinton, compared with just 26 percent who see her in a positive light,” the Journal’s Aaron Zitner noted. “That’s a gap of 38 points.”
It’s about as poor a rating as Mr. Obama received at one of the lowest points of his presidency: In December 2013, amid the troubled rollout of healthcare.gov and after the government shutdown that year, Mr. Obama was viewed unfavorably by 67% of white men and favorably by 29% — a 38-point difference that matches Mrs. Clinton’s gap today.
If Mrs. Clinton’s favorability numbers translate into voting behavior, she would be in a pretty deep hole: Her 26% favorable rating among white men is lower than the 35% share that Mr. Obama won in the 2012 election.
Now, I don’t think that every single one of those men who refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton is doing so because she’s a woman. But I do think that too many voters — male and female — won’t even let her in the room to be convinced. In the first Democratic debate, Clinton proved that she has the ability to answer tough questions, and she demonstrated that she has what it takes to lead a bitterly divided nation — including her own fractious party.
And while Clinton critics could point to her deficit among white men as reason to worry about her electability in the general election, Zitner also notes that "Republicans are in such [dire] need of minority-voter support that they can lose in 2016 even if Mrs. Clinton underperforms Mr. Obama among white voters."
All the while, her poll numbers have continued to indicate that she can win.
As much as I would like to see Bernie Sanders become the next Democratic nominee, it does us absolutely no favors to let Hillary hysteria win the day. The response from many among Sanders’ white male voter base to Hillary Clinton’s continued success in the polls is to refuse to vote for her in the general election, as if the only thing worse than a Republican presidency is four years of another Clinton. But instead of folding our arms like a pack of third graders who have been told recess is cancelled, Sanders supporters should hold Hillary Clinton accountable to the right things, instead of quibbling about how much we just don’t like her, make her a better candidate.
Bernie Sanders’ supporters might accuse Clinton of sounding like a Republican, but we’re the ones who are doing the GOP’s dirty work for them.