Too bad for Hillary Clinton there wasn’t a presidential election on Feb. 2, 2013—the day after she stepped down as secretary of State.
At the time, Clinton enjoyed approval ratings near 70 percent, a number seen by President Obama only in the first months of his administration, and significantly higher than Clinton has had in more than two decades in the national spotlight (with the brief exception of right after her husband was impeached in the Monica Lewinsky scandal). Even 37 percent of Republicans thought favorably of her, according to a Washington Post/ABC News Poll in January 2013.
What she accomplished substantively in her four years at State is a matter of debate, but one thing she definitely improved was her public image. Americans who’d watched her grueling, ultimately losing campaign against a younger, more junior Senate colleague were impressed.
The steady, head-down job radiated confidence. There she was in Moscow, working to rebuild the relationship with Russia. Or in China, negotiating the release of a blind dissident lawyer who had sought refuge in the American embassy. Or in Myanmar, becoming the first U.S. secretary of State to visit in more than a half century.
Just two years later, so much of that seems a distant memory. Her approval numbers have tanked, but perhaps even more damaging: What had been the key achievement on her resume now cannot be mentioned without raising questions of pay-to-play and deleted emails.
The respect she earned from visiting a record 112 nations? The admiration for the million air miles she logged in those four years, including those aboard that cavernous C-17 that’s now her signature image? Gone, replaced instead with reminders of the Hillary Clinton of years past, the first lady deflecting or obfuscating—sometimes for her husband, sometimes on her own behalf; sometimes it was impossible to discern which.
“This is not the launch they wanted,” said David Winston, a GOP consultant who worked for House Speaker Newt Gingrich in those earlier days. “Because of the way she’s done it, she’s let these things be the dominant issues.”
Call it squandered goodwill—made worse by the knowledge that these were unforced errors. The Clinton Foundation could have chosen to follow its 2008 “memorandum of understanding” with the Obama Transition Team to the letter. Former President Bill Clinton could have foregone taking speaking fees from clients with business before the State Department. Hillary Clinton could have conducted her official duties using official equipment and official email accounts—and then let career service professionals decide which emails were public business and which were not.
The first decision goes to her relationship with her husband, and whether she could have controlled his activities even if she’d wanted to. And the second is no doubt a function of living decades under a harsh media microscope. Keeping things secret likely seemed much more attractive than having political opponents rummaging around searching for new scandal.
A Quinnipiac University poll shows how far she’s fallen. Her favorability number is now about even—46 percent to 47 percent. A strong majority believes she is not honest and trustworthy, and even the approval rating of her work as secretary of State is down to 50 percent to 45 percent.
Of course, it’s not realistic to think that she would remain as popular as she’d been when she went back to being a presidential candidate. Those stratospheric numbers were bound to come to earth, whether there were whiffs of new scandals or merely the dredged up old ones.
Clinton’s actual performance as secretary of State is open to all sorts of interpretation. Many Republicans fault her for letting American prestige and influence wane around the world, and not doing enough as the Middle East and North Africa grew ever more turbulent. Her defenders argue that pulling back from perceived excesses of the previous administration was exactly what American voters wanted in 2008—and that she was implementing Obama’s foreign policy, not creating one of her own.
Whatever the reality, and however historians eventually come down on her tenure, Americans thought well of it while it was happening, and for some time afterward.
But as it became clear that she intended to run for the presidency again, her supporters and opponents began lining up on the usual sides, just as they have been from the time a quarter-century ago when she declared that she would not have stayed home to bake cookies.
Now, like eight years ago, it is her name on the ballot. More than half of the electorate is female, and the opportunity to elect the first woman president will be powerful motivation. Attention spans are short, and it’s unclear how closely actual voters are following presidential politics right now, anyway.
Even Winston, the Republican, acknowledges that it’s early, and that Clinton has plenty of time to change the story to one more to her liking. “This isn’t carved in stone,” he said. “This is right now where things are.”