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Is it time America had a woman president?

Here in Ireland, the question repeatedly posed to me by family, friends and colleagues is: “Will it be Hillary?” writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE CAMPAIGN TO be the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States in 2016, with its reality TV moments and “longshot frontrunners,” rumbles on.

The overcrowded field of candidates has slowly started to diminish as voters tune in more closely. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the centre of attention is Hillary Clinton.

Here in Ireland, the question repeatedly posed to me by family, friends and colleagues is: “Will it be Hillary?”

The question, and the typically uncertain or sceptical manner in which it is asked, stems from the following narrative that is in wide circulation.

Making mistakes 

Yes, Hillary is the presumptive frontrunner with a wealth of experience, endorsements from politicians and activists at national, state-wide and local levels and an enormous amount of money. But the same held true in 2008 and she was defeated by Barack Obama. Her campaign made serious mistakes then, and it appears to be making some big mistakes this time.

Hillary’s most recent poll numbers aren’t very good – self proclaimed socialist US Senator Bernie Sanders is nipping at her heels in Iowa and may actually be ahead of her in New Hampshire – and her unfavourable ratings are more troubling. Democrats are panicked and 72 year old Vice President Joe Biden, or possibly even Secretary of State John Kerry or former Vice President Al Gore, might have to step in. It looks like Hillary may blow it again.

IRISH Clinton&Ahern 3 Source: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

The accuracy of this narrative, stoked by a desperate media who want a competitive Democratic presidential primary and by equally desperate Republicans who would love to take her out and face a weaker nominee in the general election, is dubious. It is worth asking, however, why the climate in the US and elsewhere is so conducive to this narrative’s attaining the status of near-conventional wisdom. In sum, why do people love to hate Hillary Clinton? There are several reasons.

The political right will never forgive what they regard as her disgraceful comments during her husband’s 1992 campaign and while she served as First Lady.

Feminist world

Many believe her remark that “I could have stayed home and baked cookies” was a stinging and dismissive attack on the traditional family and indicative of a radically feminist world view.

Indeed, Hillary’s very persona, a Wellesley College and Yale Law School educated liberal, is one that the hard right cannot stomach. Her advocacy for universal health care during her husband’s first term and her deeply held pro-choice position on abortion have made her persona non grata forever for conservatives.

The political left is repulsed by her cosy relationship with Wall Street and other financial interests when she represented New York in the US Senate and sought the presidency. That the “1%” has donated heavily to her campaigns and that the gulf in income inequality continues to worsen in the US are causes of outrage for many on the American left, who had hoped that US Senator Elizabeth Warren would run for president against her.

Liberal Democrats are also discomfited by Hillary’s arguably hawkish stand on the use of US military force around the world. Internationally, left wing politicians decry her approval of the use of force in the Middle East as a symptom of her pro-Israel bias.

DEM 2016 Clinton Source: Associated Press

Hillary’s critics who are neither on the political left or right have voiced quite legitimate concerns about her using a private email server as US Secretary of State, about the Clinton Foundation accepting donations from foreign governments and about the tragic events in Benghazi.

Lastly, as acknowledged by her chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Sanders, some of the criticism of Hillary Clinton is motivated by sexism.

Haters 

How does Hillary respond to the “haters” and rebut the prevailing narrative as the campaign season gets into full swing?

She will not win over hearts and minds on the right, but she has demonstrated a capacity to reach out to voters in “Middle America,” who are struggling and who may be tempted to vote Republican after eight years of President Obama.

In the dying days of her 2008 campaign, she was drinking beer with and winning the votes of these disaffected men and women in places like West Virginia, Kentucky and rural Pennsylvania. Notwithstanding the lofty heights she has scaled in her career, Hillary is a product of “Middle America” – and she should continue to remind people of that.

As for the left, in messaging that is alternatively subtle and crystal clear, Hillary needs to remind them of some uncomfortable realities.

For instance, although vested financial interests may unduly influence American politics through significant donations to both parties, her track record illustrates that she is well attuned and extremely responsive to the needs of the less well off. In an overall sense, Hillary must simultaneously burnish her progressive credentials and convince Democrats that she, not any other mooted or current candidate for the party’s nomination, is best placed to win the presidency.

Kennedy Center Honors 2012 Source: AP/Press Association Images

Albeit clumsily and much later than should have been the case, Hillary has begun to confront the scandals that give some otherwise sympathetic Americans pause. She must be more forthcoming with respect to her emails and the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising activities. This will require admitting mistakes and apologising more fulsomely than she has to date.

And with respect to sexism, 50% of the electorate are well-acquainted with what she has always been up against. Many men are sympathetic. Addressed adroitly, Hillary’s gender should prove an asset on the campaign trail.

All of these responses would require honesty and authenticity from Hillary Clinton. The opinion polls reveal that these are two qualities that Americans find lacking in her.

Her husband’s character 

This is unfortunate, and does not bear out what those who know her personally say. In addition to her own failings, the public’s judgement is likely due also to residual doubts about her husband’s character and, perhaps to a greater extent, to the way her last presidential campaign was managed and how Hillary Clinton, the candidate, was presented.

This time around, Hillary needs to be Hillary. Everyone knows who she is and what she has accomplished.

In my view, being more honest and authentic – and true to herself, not to her advisers and spin doctors – would win her the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Owing to her financial and institutional advantages and ultimately to demographics, she will probably win both anyway. But it’d be far better if she went out and won the presidency for herself.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

Read: More women will be in the next Dáil — that would be the case even without gender quotas>

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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