HIllary Clinton (AP/Seth Wenig)

Hillary's amazing achievement: Understanding the magnitude of Clinton's historic win

Maligned for decades, it's time she got credit and respect for what's she's accomplished — and what she can do next


Heather Digby Parton
June 8, 2016 4:00PM (UTC)

Everyone said yesterday was historic. But if you tuned into the cable news networks all day and most of the early evening you would have assumed it was historic because Donald Trump had said something racist. This would be confusing if you've followed the campaign since Donald Trump says racist things virtually every day.  However, he said something unusually racist recently which had the networks chasing Republican officials and operatives all day long asking them to disavow the racism.

But lo and behold despite the non-stop coverage of this exciting development, the historic moment was something else entirely. It turns out that for the first time in American history,  a woman was about to become the presumptive nominee for president. That Trump is a wily one. He managed to dominate the news cycle even on such a red-letter day.

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The networks could be somewhat excused by the fact that the AP had already reported that Hillary Clinton had exceeded the number of delegates required to win the nomination the night before. They had been surveying super-delegates, the members of congress, ex-presidents  and local party officials who make up 20% of the delegates and are free to vote for whomever they choose, and found that she had gone over the top.  It was a case of premature electoral projection. But still, the real clinching number was understood to be when Clinton reached the magic number of a majority of pledged delegates, reflecting the will of the voters. And barring some very substantial polling errors, it was clear this was going to happen on the last big day of primaries when six states would cast their votes. For the most part the TV networks shrugged.

As it turns out however, after Trump gave his perfunctory teleprompter speech in which he said exactly what he always says but without the color and excitement, a strange thing began to happen. The pundits and the reporters all seemed to notice at the same time that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination. And it seemed to dawn on them that it was an important moment worth noting. After all, it had never happened before. Ever.

For those of us of the female persuasion especially, this carries some emotional freight. Walking around in the world as a member of half the population with only 20% of the representation in government and 5% in the top jobs in business and a thousand other statistics that prove just how unequal you are in your own society feels ... strange. Indeed, it's mind-boggling. So it means something to a lot of women that a democratic process might just produce a woman president. It's bigger than just someone getting a job. It's getting a job by a vote of a majority of the people --- that's the kind of symbolic validation that has teeth.

But the truth is that voting women into office has a number of positive effects on our system that go beyond the symbolic.  According to this article by Matt Yglesias, when women are elected it tends to have a multiplying effect on other offices. Just the fact of having them there seems to inspire other women and perhaps more importantly, normalize the idea of it for everyone.  Apparently takes people actually seeing a woman perform a job traditionally held by men to prove they can do it.

But as important as that is, more women in high office has a direct impact on policy. The Washington Post compiled some research on the subject:

For one, women are more likely than men to advocate for issues often associated with women’s interests — child care, women’s health, abortion, pay equity and the like. There are many studies, but see Michele Swers’s two books to start with. This shows up, for example, in in floor speeches and legislative debates, where women are more likely to discuss issues in terms of women’s interests. (Women are also more likely than men to give floor speeches, period.) [...]

Other research suggests that women may be more effective legislators than men. Craig Volden, Alan Wiseman and Dana Wittmer find that, within the minority party, women are able to get their sponsored bills further through the legislative process. Sarah Anzia and Christopher Berry have shown that women sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do, and deliver about 9 percent more funding to their districts.

It also happens that the more successful they are at getting their agenda passed, the more they are able to get men on board as well. Given the chance, women are actually pretty good at politics.  And they are particularly effective at progressive politics. This would seem to be a good thing for the Democratic party.

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And this brings us to Hillary Clinton herself. She has been a controversial figure since she first came on the national scene and offended everyone by using her maiden name and saying she could have baked cookies and had teas but decided to pursue her profession. During her stint as first lady she was considered by many, and not just Republicans, to be a far-left feminist whose radical ideas were leading poor Bubba astray.  It's must be somewhat jarring for her to now be considered a right-wing hawk by many Democrats, but that's more a reflection of the ideological pendulum swinging to the left than any change on her part. The truth is that she's always been a mainstream Democrat, little philosophically different than the dozens of mainstream male Democrats most of us have voted for for decades.

Now she's the first woman presumptive nominee of the Democratic party and she's proved she's pretty good at politics too as this piece by Ezra Klein at Vox points out:

She has achieved something no one else in the history of American politics has even come close to doing, yet she is widely considered an inept, flawed candidate.

These two things are not unrelated.

Twice now we have thought that it should have been easy for Clinton to do what no one has ever done before. Twice now we have dismissed her as a weak candidate and a flawed leader for struggling to break a barrier that no one else has ever come near breaking.

America has hosted 56 presidential elections — 33 of them before women received the right to vote. Exactly zero of those elections featured a female nominee from one of the two major political parties.

Until Hillary Clinton.

There is something about Clinton that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. Or perhaps there is something about us that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement.

Perhaps, in ways we still do not fully appreciate, the reason no one has ever broken the glass ceiling in American politics is because it's really fucking hard to break. Before Clinton, no one even came close.

Whether you like Clinton or hate her — and plenty of Americans hate her — it's time to admit that the reason Clinton was the one to break it is because Clinton is actually really good at politics.

She's just good at politics in a way we haven't learned to appreciate.

Klein goes on to observe that politics inherently favors male traits  because well, it's always been a man's game! And Clinton doesn't do particularly well at the big rallies, strutting around, ginning up the crowd kind of politics. In fact, many people can't understand how she can possibly be winning unless she's cheating somehow.

But she's winning too big for that. Before the last six primaries her winning margin in the popular vote was bigger than any Democratic presidential primary candidate in the last 30 years:

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And after last night that margin grew even bigger.

So, what gives? How can someone who is supposedly so bad at all the things we think politicians have to be good at be winning like that?

Klein proposes that she's using a different kind of politics. And she's very, very good at it:

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[A]nother way to look at the primary is that Clinton employed a less masculine strategy to win. She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 523 governors of members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; 13 have endorsed Sanders.

This work is a grind — it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon.

But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over...

And Clinton isn't just better — she's relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her.

That's not as sexy as Donald Trump landing in his gold plated 767 and promising to turn back time, but it'll get 'er done.

None of this is to say that Clinton is necessarily going to be a great president. We simply don't know that. She is, after all, a mainstream Democrat very similar to President Obama with all that that implies. She'll be under the same constraints and probably even more pressure from her left from people who were much more inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. You never really know how someone is going to perform in that job until they do it.

But as Klein says, it's time to show some respect for Clinton's political skills. Nobody gets where she is without them. It's just that her skills are different than the men who came before and we simply don't recognize them as skills. And maybe that's the only way a woman could have done it.

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One thing is for sure, the Democrats need someone with political chops to ensure they beat Donald Trump. And maybe it's lucky it's Clinton going up against him. He is a wild man who doesn't play by the rules but in her own way, neither does she. I'd bet on her off-beat "woman skills" over his crude animal instincts any day.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Democratic Primary Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Super Tuesday

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