In September, Chelsea Clinton and her husband of four years, Marc Mezvinsky, announced that they are hoping to become parents soon. “We want, God willing, to start a family, so we decided we were going to make 2014 the Year of the Baby,” said Chelsea, who turned thirty-four this year, during an interview with Glamour magazine.
“And please,” the former first daughter added, “call my mother and tell her that. She asks us about it every single day.”
That Hillary is in the mood for grandchildren shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who is, or who knows, the mother of a married thirtysomething. It’s like an alarm goes off in a mother’s brain at a certain age: Must. Have. Grandbaby. And it’s not just the moms. Bill, for his part, has also been beating the Grandkid Drum since 2010, when he coyly mentioned at an AIDS conference in Vienna that he’d like to live long enough to see his own grandchildren. A few months later, on the David Letterman show, he told the host that his wife couldn’t have been happier that his daughter was tying the knot. “Hillary,” he drawled, “wants to be a grandmother more than she wanted to be president.”
Here’s hoping Hillary—and Chelsea, Marc, and Bill, too—get what they want. Babies are a beautiful thing. But here’s the truth of it: in the strange world of campaign politics, where the square-jawed Romney brood and cardigan-clad Obama girls become national shorthand for a candidate’s private life, the arrival of the first Clinton grandchild will not just be a beautiful thing; it’ll be a political thing, too. The presumptive Democratic candidate will suddenly have a new role she needs to master: grandmother. And in myriad ways that no male candidate would be, she will be judged, for good or ill, by how well she performs it.
The most obvious risk to her new role is that it will inevitably highlight her age, a vulnerability some conservatives have already begun exploiting. (At sixty-six, Hillary is “not particularly old for a man,” Washington Times columnist Wes Pruden generously observed last year, but “a woman in public life is getting past her sell-by date.”) She will also likely provoke a national water-cooler debate, as no male candidate would, over whether she is too involved in her grandchild’s life, or, more likely, not involved enough—“How can she have time to be a good grandmother,” people will ask, “when she’s out running for president?”
But while these risks are real, so are the potential political rewards. “In a world where nearly 40 percent of new mothers are single, many communities rely on grandmothers to hold together the whole family,” said Anne Liston, a Democratic strategist. “The image of a grandmother is one of a compassionate caregiver.” Another Democratic strategist, Celinda Lake, notes that that wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, being a grandmother was a liability, she said. “It used to be that many would run after their kids were grown, so they were grandmothers, but they’d try to hide it,” she said. “But now we’re seeing that cohort—Baby Boomer women—actually relishing that role. Rather than being out-of-date, it means you’re investing in the future. It’s a powerful symbol.”
For Hillary, becoming a grandmother offers another particular advantage: it will give her the space to create a new public image. One that is softer. Cuddlier. More relatable. More real.
And that’s exactly what Hillary needs. For years, she’s been hamstrung by schizophrenic reviews from those she needs to win over. On one hand, people seem to agree that she is by nearly all counts the logical, most electable candidate on the blue team. In nearly all polls over the last four years, Democratic voters have found her competent, strong, intelligent, and imminently electable. But on the other hand, when it comes down to measuring that slippery je ne sais quoi of a candidate’s likability, there’s something about the lady that makes many in the Democratic base just sort of squinch up their face. (You know the look: “It’s not that I don’t like her; it’s just that …”) To many liberals, the allegation is often that she’s too shrewdly ambitious, too obviously the product of the steely, well-oiled Clintonland political machine. (In the lead-up to the 2008 election, liberal editor Robert Kuttner worried that “everything she does seems calculating, poll-tested, and money-driven.”) To many moderates, she’s just plain dull.
Becoming a grandmother could help remedy both those problems. It could allow her, for example, to simply become more human at the podium. She could suddenly be in a position to crack jokes about tripping over baby toys, or tell a funny story about the little one waking up and crying all night, or barfing on her aide (babies are so great!). And this shift in persona won’t all be off the cuff. If Hillary becomes a grandmother, her speechwriters will also suddenly have a supply of rich personal material—anecdotes, observations, feelings—that they can use to connect the candidate to the policies she has long championed, from pre-K education to family leave to the plight of girls in the developing world. For moderates, this will help her seem less dull, and for liberals, it will help her cut through their suspicions that, as one cynical Democrat put it to me, she’s just “saying things to check off the box for the single-mother vote.”
Of course, regardless of how deftly she plays her new role, Hillary’s many critics will complain. They will accuse her of using the child as a campaign tool, and any references to her adorable grandkid will be marshaled as further proof that she is the most calculating person in politics. Indeed, because she’s a Clinton, and hence presumed by many on the right to be capable of anything, we can expect all kinds of conspiratorial accusations, especially among our unhinged friends on right-wing radio. Did she pressure Chelsea to have that baby? How was it that the timing so perfectly coincided with the 2016 election? Did Bill and Hillary have their daughter artificially inseminated?
That Chelsea’s thirty-four and married and at a stage in her life when many young women choose to become mothers won’t, of course, factor into such fevered calculations, but so be it. That’s politics. It’s a wild world out there, and Baby Clinton-Mezvinsky, whenever he or she arrives, will be at the center of it. Welcome, kiddo. You’re in for a treat.
Photo credit: AP