Hillary’s Sexism Opportunity

National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
June 10, 2014, 2:53 p.m.

For­get the book tour, Hil­lary.

Do something in­ter­est­ing.

Start by end­ing the con­strict­ing and un­pal­at­able ob­ses­sion that the pres­id­en­tial glass ceil­ing is yours and yours alone to break. It isn’t. The longer you pre­tend oth­er­wise, the longer your road to the White House will be­come. The glass ceil­ing halts the pro­gress of all wo­men — not just yours.

Your prox­im­ity to it, his­tor­ic­ally, mat­ters a great deal. Be­ing the closest wo­men to the ceil­ing who hasn’t broken through simply isn’t enough to jus­ti­fy or even ex­plain a second run for the White House. As you learned in 2008, be­ing “in it to win it” leaves gaps a plucky rival can ex­ploit.

This isn’t about cam­paign ad­vice. For thou­sands of genu­inely im­port­ant reas­ons, I don’t give cam­paign ad­vice. I’m not ad­voc­at­ing on be­half of mak­ing the cam­paign more in­ter­est­ing, either. It just seems to me, hav­ing covered Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign in 2008, the book tour she has just launched — and the book it­self — has the same re­pet­it­ive dull­ness and pen­chant for pablum that ham­strung her first bid for the White House.

In­stead of get­ting trapped in the eco­nom­ic glue of pre­tend­ing to hav­ing been “dead broke” after leav­ing the White House, why not, Hil­lary, go to every city on your tour and identi­fy the wo­man there who ought to con­sider run­ning for pres­id­ent? What could be the harm?

More im­port­ant, what could be the gain?

First, it would take you off your self-built ped­es­tal of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity. Noth­ing is in­ev­it­able. See ‘08.

Second, it would sug­gest you know you’re not all that and a bag of chips — no one is, by the way. Hu­mil­ity was a char­ac­ter­ist­ic Hil­lary only showed when she was way be­hind in ‘08. And crowds ate it up. The feisty, down-on-her-luck, and bat­tling Hil­lary had something ut­terly ab­sent from her cam­paign ap­pear­ances in Iowa, New Hamp­shire, Nevada, and South Car­o­lina — all the way through Su­per Tues­day. That Hil­lary’s hu­mil­ity came too late is ax­io­mat­ic. The point is, Hil­lary be­came reach­able, touch­able, and even lov­able (some­what) when she stopped buy­ing her own nox­ious in­ev­it­ab­il­ity myth.

Third, it would give Hil­lary something she’s rarely de­veloped in her pub­lic life — a repu­ta­tion for be­ing clev­er. There’s noth­ing more dis­arm­ing in polit­ics or life than a power­ful per­son shed­ding that power in fa­vor of the flat­tery of oth­ers. The best weapon a seem­ingly in­ev­it­able politi­cian can em­ploy is to shed the aura of in­ev­it­ab­il­ity. There is no oth­er politi­cian in Amer­ica for whom this is truer than Hil­lary. If Hil­lary says lots of wo­men — right now — are ready to be pres­id­ent she doesn’t make her­self weak­er by com­par­is­on, she makes her­self stronger by speak­ing on be­half of qual­i­fic­a­tions.

Fourth, it would give Hil­lary a chance to be bi­par­tis­an in a gal­van­iz­ing way — not in the in­sip­id way her book pre­tends. In­stead of try­ing to peddle a bunch of sloppy and in­co­her­ent dreams for “in­clus­ive polit­ics and a com­mon pur­pose to un­leash the cre­ativ­ity, po­ten­tial, and op­por­tun­ity that makes Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al,” name some Re­pub­lic­an wo­men qual­i­fied to be pres­id­ent. Hil­lary need not agree with the po­s­i­tions of Govs. Susana Mar­tinez of New Mex­ico or Nikki Haley of South Car­o­lina or Mary Fal­l­in of Ok­lahoma, or of Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire or Susan Collins of Maine. She could say they all are daft on the ideas she holds dear and would love to de­bate them to prove how wrong they are, but un­der­score that each has the ba­sic qual­i­fic­a­tions for the pres­id­ency. Flat­tery in polit­ics need not ring pos­it­ively true. Fre­quently it doesn’t, but even in its fals­ity it can re­shape im­pres­sions and scramble polit­ic­al ac­tions. No one right now has more ca­pa­city to do this than Hil­lary.

Ima­gine, for just one second, if Hil­lary had said at Tues­day’s book sign­ing in New York something highly com­pli­ment­ary of Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand of New York? So com­pli­ment­ary that it egged on a ques­tion about wheth­er Gil­librand was qual­i­fied for the White House. Can you ima­gine the thun­der­claps if Hil­lary had cas­u­ally said, “Yes. And she’s not the only one.” Who else? “Come to my next book sign­ing.”

Fol­low along my ad­mit­tedly sub­vers­ive train of thought as we trundle north to Bo­ston. How about Hil­lary say­ing Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren ab­so­lutely, pos­it­ively has the qual­i­fic­a­tions to be pres­id­ent and would make a great can­did­ate? Sud­denly, the ques­tion isn’t wheth­er Hil­lary is threatened by the pro­spect of an in­sur­gent, draft-War­ren move­ment; it’s now about how Hil­lary is the ad­voc­ate for a Demo­crat­ic Party brim­ming with qual­i­fied wo­men can­did­ates for pres­id­ent. With one ut­ter­ance, Hil­lary would take the wind out of the idea of a War­ren in­sur­gency, one of its most al­lur­ing qual­it­ies at the mo­ment, and win her­self a laurel for equan­im­ity and fem­in­ist truth-telling. It might even score grudging points from fence-sit­ting pro­gress­ives. This is what is known as a clev­er stunt. Hil­lary has hardly ever pulled one off. It would be a start­ling bit of fresh air.

Then there could be Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Min­neapol­is. And Sens. Claire Mc­Caskill in St. Louis, Debbie Stabenow in De­troit, and Di­anne Fein­stein and Bar­bara Box­er in Cali­for­nia. The list goes on. Or at least it could.

There is a trick to polit­ics that the best prac­ti­tion­ers use in­stinct­ively — cre­ate the im­pres­sion you’re humble and reach­able when you are not. Hil­lary is ap­par­ently in­cap­able of this in­sight and demon­strably in­cap­able of de­ploy­ing this tac­tic. Rather, she ex­ults in the sep­ar­ate­ness of polit­ics — the joys of pipe, drape, rope, and dis­tance. Her team is im­pec­cably cap­able at trans­lat­ing the crude lan­guage of mus­cu­lar­ity to crowds, the press, and even those who seek to rally to her side. This comes from a sense of al­ways bat­tling in polit­ics, first on be­half of Bill and then on be­half of her­self as the wo­man who … just “¦ might “¦ make “¦ it. That had to be a heavy bur­den, and it showed all through ‘08. Un­til then, Hil­lary was way be­hind and had no plaus­ible reas­on to con­tin­ue. The sheer im­prob­ab­il­ity, bor­der­ing on math­em­at­ic­al ri­dicu­lous­ness, of her post-Su­per Tues­day cam­paign earned for Hil­lary something she’d nev­er had be­fore—sym­pathy.

Hil­lary can­not draw on that now. And noth­ing in this blood­less book rol­lout has the slight­est chance of cre­at­ing any. What Hil­lary can do is rhet­or­ic­ally widen the pres­id­en­tial view­find­er, cast­ing an ap­prov­ing light on oth­er wo­men in polit­ics, re­gard­ing her­self as only one of many qual­i­fied, en­er­get­ic, and in­ter­ested wo­men who could lead the na­tion. Hil­lary would give the ap­pear­ance of shed­ding the pres­id­en­tial am­bi­tions her book tour now burn­ish to a near-blind­ing gloss. She would nev­er give up those am­bi­tions; she would merely shed the off-put­ting ap­pear­ance of them.

And then Hil­lary, for once, could de­light in be­ing judged on her ap­pear­ances.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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