For months, the political world chattered about Hillary Clinton’s expected announcement, and we can now finally abandon the rhetorical caveats. The former Secretary of State is no longer an “unannounced” candidate; she isn’t a “presumptive” White House hopeful; she isn’t “likely” to launch a national campaign. As of yesterday afternoon, the Democrat is officially a candidate.
As we discussed yesterday, the kickoff told us quite a bit about the kind of campaign Clinton intends to run, and the key differences from her previous candidacy. There’s also increased clarity on Clinton’s rationale: “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” As one-sentence summaries go, that’s not a bad pitch.
But as yesterday’s developments unfolded, I found myself thinking about history.
Historical Angle #1: The opportunity for the first woman president.
The most obvious historical angle is also arguably the most important: if successful, Clinton would be the first woman ever elected president of the United States. Quantifying political chatter is tough, but this potential breakthrough doesn’t seem to be generating the bulk of the attention, which in itself is evidence of an evolution of sorts.
In 2007, much of the discussion focused on the competition between the first competitive African-American candidate, the first competitive woman candidate, and whether or not Americans are “ready” for a president who isn’t a white man. Eight years later, Clinton’s gender and the electorate’s openness, at least for now, is the subject of less speculation, but the opportunity to make history is no less significant.
Historical Angle #2: An instant intra-party frontrunner without precedent.
Clinton and her team have abandoned the “inevitability” posture embraced in 2007 – expect nothing but humility – but the degree to which she’s the presumptive Democratic nominee is extraordinary. In the modern era, other than incumbents and sitting vice presidents, how many candidates start off with the kind of intra-party advantage Clinton now enjoys? Zero, it’s just never happened.
To be sure, Clinton was a frontrunner who was defeated eight years ago, so it’s understandable that skeptics will wonder whether something similar could happen again, but there is no Barack Obama among her Democratic rivals, and Clinton’s advantage is vastly stronger now that it was in 2007.
Historical Angle #3: Clinton brings a unique resume to voters.
Americans have seen cabinet secretaries elected to the White House. Americans have also seen officials elected to statewide office become president. But the universe of presidents who’ve done both is very small. In fact, only five people have pulled it off – and each did so a very long time ago.
Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State and governor) was the first to do it, followed by James Monroe (Secretary of State, governor, and senator). Soon after, John Quincy Adams (Secretary of State and senator), Martin Van Buren (Secretary of State, governor, and senator), and James Buchanan (Secretary of State and senator) boasted the same background. But note, the most recent of the bunch was Buchanan, who left office in 1861.
In other words, Clinton’s critics will throw everything they have at her, but no one will suggest she’s inexperienced – she offers the kind of resume Americans have not seen in generations. If Clinton parlays her cabinet and Senate experience into a presidential victory, she’ll join a very small club, and will be the first president since the Civil War to combine years of executive and legislative experience.
Historical Angle #4: Parties usually struggle to win three in a row.
In the modern era – let’s say, post-1932 – a party has only held onto to the White House in three consecutive elections twice. Democrats did it with FDR and Truman, and Republicans did it with Reagan and H.W. Bush. (I’d argue that Democrats arguably did it again with Clinton and Gore, but the Supreme Court disagreed.) But other than these rare instances, parties tend to win a cycle or two before voters look for a change in partisan direction.
I mention this because for all the positive historical angles surrounding Clinton, she faces the historical headwinds of keeping the White House in her party’s control for a third consecutive term, which is a rare and difficult feat.
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Clinton's unique opportunity to make history