Hillary Clinton’s Historic Candidacy Presents Unique Challenges

Given that Donald Trump is a narcissistic serial liar who is uniquely unfit to be POTUS, the question has been raised about why Hillary Clinton isn’t winning this election in a landslide. Aaron Blake attempted to answer that question. But other than noting the extreme partisanship that has gripped the electorate, I find his answers to be pretty weak tea.

In order to fully address what is happening in this election, it is helpful to acknowledge several ways that it is historical – and how that sets up both advantages and disadvantages for Clinton. The most obvious historical precedent is that this presidential election pits that narcissistic serial liar against the first female nominee of a major political party. As we’ve seen over and over again, that upsets most of the assumptions we’ve built up over the years about how to judge political candidates.

Not only does the press have to grapple with their addiction to both-sider-ism in the face of a candidate who is obviously unfit for office, we are all required to examine how sexism affects our analysis of presidential candidates. Sometimes our assumptions are blatantly sexist – like whether or not Clinton shouts too much or doesn’t smile enough. At other times, they are more subtle – like whether or not she wants to win “too much.”

There is also the fact that she brings a different set of skills to the table. As Ezra Klein pointed out – she listens, tries to build consensus and is not very good at giving inspirational speeches. You can argue whether or not those are traits we are more likely to see in a woman than in a man. But we need to ask ourselves questions about our priorities in the skills we want to see in a POTUS.

Finally, there are those voters who will struggle – probably quietly – with whether or not they are comfortable with a woman as Commander-in-Chief. And so, while being the first female candidate of a major political party carries with it some advantages, it also creates some liabilities that are unique for Hillary Clinton.

The other thing that is historical in this election is the presence of Barack Obama. It has been noted that having a fairly popular sitting president dedicate himself to campaigning for his successor is an advantage for Clinton. But it also means – in a sense – that she is running for a third term to build on his presidency rather than as a change candidate, as he was able to do in 2008. That makes her campaign a steeper climb.

It is also important to keep in mind that it was the presidency of Barack Obama (and the Republican response to it) that fueled the backlash we’re witnessing on the right. The fact that this country’s first African American president will likely be followed by our first female president signals tremendous change for those who want to “take our country back” to the good old days of the 1950’s. Rebecca Traister summed that up a few months ago:

The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…

Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead.

If the forces arrayed against that “altered power structure” weren’t so difficult to defeat, we would have had an African American and female president a long time ago.

But beyond gender and race, there is a more subtle way that Barack Obama’s candidacy and presidency present a challenge for the Clinton campaign. As we hear about how people (especially millennials) aren’t “enthusiastic” about voting for Clinton, it is helpful to remember that Obama was a bit of an outlier in that regard. For a lot of people, voting for him in 2008 was the first time they could support a presidential nominee whole-heartedly. In politics, that is the exception rather than the rule. A lot of people voted for John Kerry and Al Gore without much enthusiasm – they were simply MUCH better choices than the alternative. That’s usually how things go in our two party system.

Perhaps coming on the heels of an enthusiastic vote for Obama, young people have come to expect that as the norm – and it’s not. Complicating that even more are those young people whose enthusiasm for Obama led them to believe that he could do more than is realistically possible as president. In other words, they supported him whole-heartedly because they thought he could be a savior. When that didn’t prove to be the case, they became disillusioned and are now dubious about going down that road again.

I believe that historians will look back at this decade as a moment when our country made some significant choices about the direction we want to go. President Obama has been an inspirational leader in cajoling us to continue the work of “perfecting our union.” The choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is historic in that sense. We can decide to push towards our better natures or cower in fear and retreat. As the one person on the ballot who can do the former, that mantle falls on Clinton’s shoulders right now. She is a flawed candidate because she is human – and therefore flawed like the rest of us. But she is running a remarkable campaign in light of the advantages and disadvantages on her plate at this moment in history.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.