The Hillary Clinton campaign for the White House officially got underway on Saturday with an announcement from Roosevelt Island New York City. With this statement, her campaign came under the Federal Election Commission rules for political activities. From a legal perspective, that is significant, but from a political point of view, it is merely acknowledging what already has been. Mrs. Clinton suspended her 2008 campaign, but she has revived it now after the Obama years. The message is more progressive based on what she said over the week-end, but the difficulty remains. For her, the message is secondary to the messenger.
Her choice of venue, Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River separating Manhattan from Queens, is telling. The Four Freedoms speech FDR gave in 1941, as he was preparing to take the oath of office again, laid out a progressive view of liberty at a time when freedom appeared to be going out of style. He stated that human beings had the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear. The first two underscored American tradition, while the second pair broke new ground. For a generation that had suffered through the great depression and saw the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo and Franco, having enough without fear resonated.
In 2015, the freedoms from want and from fear aren’t quite as powerful as they were in 1941, but they are more powerful now than they have been since the end of World War II. Terrorist attacks have Americans overly fearful (with one big exception, there have not been many in the US worthy of concern), and the Great Recession has scarred everyone but the ultra-rich. Mrs. Clinton is building her campaign on that fact.
In her speech, she said government had a duty to create “real and lasting prosperity . . . built by all and shared by all.” Her message sounds farther to the left than her senatorial campaigns, but the demographics and polling tell her and her advisers that the center has shifted. The electoral college favors Democrats, and the easy part is picking up a few swing states in the general election. The hard part is being left-ish enough to get the nomination without being so far left that those swing states aren’t on the table to begin with.
That, however, is to take the view that politics is only about ideology. In a democracy, and especially in a presidential style democracy, the messenger is at least as important as the message. Perhaps, the messenger is even more important. Normal, thoughtful people in the US will cheerfully say “I vote for the candidate, not the party.” One doubts the wisdom of that. George Bush the Lesser won his first term in the White House because many Americans thought he’d be a good guy to have a beer with, as if bonhomie were as important as sound judgment, an ability to master arcane subjects quickly, and cold-bloodedness in military situations. Ultimately, the electorate wants to follow someone whom they believe they can trust no matter how foolish.
Mrs. Clinton may have a tough road ahead on that score. She does have the unconditional support of those she once called “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Suit,” white woman of the Baby Boom who identify with her and her career trajectory so closely. Moreover, she can rely on the Friends of Bill. Her husband remains a force in the Democratic Party and in the heartland of the US (though one cannot fathom why on the latter score). Donors will line up to hand over money. But her campaign announcement had nothing to excite the young, and she will have to work to bring Black and Latino voters and volunteers on board in large numbers.
There will be some who believe so much in the idea of the first female president that they will march anywhere she needs them. At the same time, Generations X and Y and the Millennials aren’t going to get worked up over giving a 69-year-old grandmother (as she will be on Election Day 2016) another laurel. Chelsea Clinton might help, but in truth, the younger voters would probably prefer that Chelsea ran instead of her mom.
As of this morning, Mrs. Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee, and the Democratic nominee will have to run a weak campaign to lose in the Electoral College against the current crop of GOP candidates. Mrs. Clinton, however, has been inevitable before. This time, it won’t be her vote for a war in central Asia that stops her, if indeed she is stopped. It will be who she is that ends her ambition.