I have been immersed in American presidential politics since at least 1992, when I briefly volunteered in New Hampshire (a pivotal early primary) for the whirlwind that is William Jefferson Clinton. I was present at the creation of his national legend, where – despite almost daily revelations of womanising and draft-dodging that would have sunk any mere mortal – “The Comeback Kid” somehow rose above it all, going on to improbably take the White House. I remember marvelling with my college friends at the time, “How can he do this? Who would want to go through this?”
As the 2016 presidential marathon opens with Bill’s wife Hillary officially throwing her overwhelmingly favoured hat into the ring, I think my two initial questions are still seminal. Only someone with preternatural confidence, with a true sense of destiny, could possibly endure the indignities of modern presidential campaigning. Mrs Clinton has that in spades.
As they leave the starter’s blocks, the 2016 race already has a topsy-turvy quality to it, with the Republicans acting like Democrats, and the Democrats acting like Republicans. That is, the Democrats are anointing a candidate from the beginning (the usual Republican pattern) while the GOP engages in a Democratic-style pie-fight – having the most open nominating process in the last 50 years – with at least six candidates in with a real chance (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie).
Conventional wisdom strongly favours the inevitable victory of Hillary Clinton, given her free ride to the Democratic nomination. But I wouldn’t be so sure. A third presidential victory in a row for the same party is a rarity; the last time this happened was George HW Bush’s triumph on Ronald Reagan’s sizeable coat-tails in 1988. As such, given Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, the Democrats may simply be running out of steam. More personally, Hillary’s manifold strengths are finely balanced by an equal number of debilitating weaknesses.
Given the oceans of ink spilled about the Clintons, what is there left to say about Hillary? First, forget all the noise regarding a re-branding, as she is simply too well-known for that strategy to work very well; almost everyone on the planet has already formed a strong opinion about her, one way or the other. Indeed, a Public Policy poll of 31 March found that less than 5 per cent of the US electorate had an uncertain opinion of her, giving Hillary far greater public recognition than any other candidate. Ever the lightning rod, Mrs Clinton has the race’s highest favourable rating (40 per cent), while at the same time possessing the highest unfavourable rating (45 per cent). She will remain both loved and hated in equal measure, meaning her divisiveness will stop her from running away with the general election.
Hillary has by far the best CV of any candidate, having served as a surprisingly effective senator from New York, as well as secretary of state. Tough, hard working, knowledgeable, impressive in small meetings (if not in larger rallies), she is worthy, if a bit dull (in marked contrast to her husband). But Hillary also comes across as annoyingly entitled, paranoid, never to blame, and an elitist.
For example, one of her few specific campaign pledges so far is to talk piously about getting money out of US politics, despite the fact that her campaign is set to raise an opulent $2.5bn. It is hard to play at being a populist while also serving as a pillar of the establishment. Such contradictions are likely to dog her, all the way to the election. So it is far too early – as so many in the foreign press seem keen to do – to view her as a shoo-in. In fact, given her huge weaknesses, while the Democratic nomination is undoubtedly hers, I’d give her slightly less than a 50 per cent chance of winning the whole thing.
In terms of foreign policy, if Hillary were to win, without doubt she would demand far more of both the UK and Europe than has Obama, a fact of life that will cause significant discomfort. More hawkish than the current President, if also more wedded to a muscular multilateralism, Mrs Clinton’s foreign policy would call for Europe and the UK to do more about Ukraine, to spend more on defence, and to move more decisively over the euro crisis. She also believes the UK should stay in the EU, a fact which ought to discombobulate many in the Tory Party. In other words, both the UK and Europe ought to be very careful as to what they wish for.