WASHINGTON - It is said that the 2016 race to become the next president of the United States is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s to lose. And just as it was in 2008 during the primaries, she may end up doing just that.
If that were the outcome, quite a few Democrats would be shocked. Much in the spirit of Obama’s election, they feel that having a woman as president is “the next box to be checked” in U.S. history. In that endeavor and hope, they are helped by the fact that the electoral odds in presidential races tend to favor Democrats.
It is certainly an anomaly that the very country that led the global march for equal rights for women in the 1970s still has not had a woman as head of state or of government. That puts the U.S. in a league with the likes of China and Russia, two very paternalistic nations — and solidly behind nations such as Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, not to mention Germany, the United Kingdom and France.
Unperturbed, Republicans are getting ready, guns blazing. Their “Stop Hillary” campaign aims at reawakening old fears. But they must also guard against coming across as patronizing, if not misogynistic, which is a real danger for them. While they proclaim to stay away from her gender and age, one can rest assured that this will be at the center of their whispering campaign.
Image makers will play a key role. A big effort will get underway to turn every wrinkle in every close-up shot of Clinton’s face into an extra doubt about her getting to the White House. Digital cameras and HDTV are not Clinton’s ally.
To overcome the “woman” issue once and for all, Clinton decided after the 2008 race to serve as U.S. secretary of state. However, her service in that post did nothing to allay the concerns of doubters. Clinton haters keep hating her — and, via events such as the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the 2009 “reset” with Russia, find further cannon fodder in her time at the State Department.
Clinton is certainly a divisive figure. Described by some as a proven “militarist” and “corporatist” (as political activist Ralph Nader has characterized her, professing his puzzlement over how she could possibly become the Democrats’ presidential candidate), Republican operatives like to cast her as part of a liberal-progressive cabal.
If nothing else, this underscores how deeply divided American society really is. And how confused or careless people are about throwing around political labels.
Despite all that, Clinton is widely described as well prepared for the job — and she may very well be. Still, the list of doubtful questions is long indeed:
• How much in tune with the American people can a candidate be who has lived in a bubble of deference and behind a very strict U.S. Secret Service curtain at least since early 1991 — a full quarter century by the time of the election?
• How well does a woman connect with “the people” when raking in as much as $400,000 per speech, not just from corporations and business associations, but even universities?
• Further, at a time when many Democratic voters still have a hard time making ends meet, are they really comfortable with the idea of the Clintons as some kind of Democratic Party royalty?
And speaking of the Clintons, Hillary may have all of Bill’s intelligence, but she also has a spectacularly tin ear. The former president, as his personal transgressions have shown, is a very vain man. However, in contrast to his wife, he manages to mask that masterfully.
Bill is a natural-born communicator. Hillary can drone on with a sense of entitlement to the throne that even Democrats find off-putting. All too often, when trying to be folksy, she comes across as studied, numbingly so.
In Washington and elsewhere, Hillary is well known, even at policy events and dinner tables, to turn her attention, laser-like, just to the one or two people with deep pockets. It is as if she looks right through the others.
To avoid further feeding that impression of being ice-cold, Clinton is planning to go on a listening tour in Iowa. In a reprise of what she did when she successfully ran to become U.S. senator from New York, she wants to meet with voters in small groups and come across as genuine and approachable.
And even though former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been busily burnishing his conservative credentials with Republican primary voters, he has managed to speak rather authentically about voters’ concerns, while the presumption with Clinton is always that this is a studied demeanor.
Personalities aside, what also plays out unfavorably for Hillary Clinton, even among Democratic voters, is that there is an assumption that it is OK for Republican Party candidates to come from rich and well-connected families, as is the case with the Bushes.
But when that wealth was not inherited, but made by the family itself, then it seems to have a stench of inappropriateness about it, even though the Bushes and the Clintons mainly made their money due to their connections.
The ultimate test for presidential candidates in the U.S. is whom voters would rather want to have over in their backyard for an afternoon barbecue.
It is in this domain that Bush, her presumable Republican opponent, faces an advantage. He is the more affable guy (yes, guy), while Hillary faces a likability challenge.
This is an issue that may only break in the polls very late, as late as when people enter the voting booth. In a reflection of the surprising conservatism of American society, which is often considered so cutting edge (and, in many ways, is), there is still nervousness about a woman as commander-in-chief.
Despite several TV series and movies softening up the American people for a woman president, a doubt persists. It will be overcome one day — and shouldn’t even be factor in 2016. But it is.
Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, a daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture. He also is the president of The Globalist Research Center.