This is a very good piece, and Hillary Clinton’s nomination is of course a milestone that means that, long after many other democratic countries in the world, the United States has, for the first time, a real chance to elect its first female president.
From Victoria Woodhull in 1872 (whose running mate was Frederick Douglass) to Shirley Chisholm in 1972 to Pat Schroder in 1988 to Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, there’s a long line of credible women who have challenged for the presidency, and Clinton’s accomplishment builds upon the stepping stones that they laid down (not least of all her own run for the presidency in 2008).
But without denying this moment’s importance, what’s even more fascinating to me is that someone who has been at the center of American political life for 24 years (I’m not counting over a decade as Arkansas’s first lady), with a record, warts and all, in the first Clinton administration, eight years in the US Senate and four years at State has won a major-party nomination.
The trend, increasingly, has been rapid-fire rises to the top from people who seemingly come out of nowhere. Barack Obama. In a way, George W. Bush, too. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, Justin Trudeau in Canada, Tony Blair and David Cameron in Britain. There’s just something undeniably attractive about a ‘shiny new toy’ in electoral politics.
Whatever else, Hillary Clinton is not a shiny new toy.
A lot of people consider her, not without merit, as our generation’s Richard Nixon. She might not disagree! But if you consider Nixon a major figure from 1946 onwards, when he was one of the rising stars of that year’s midterm elections, he was a top political figure for just 22 years before being elected president in 1968. That’s two years less than Clinton at this point.
You’d almost certainly start George H.W. Bush’s clock from 1971, when he was the US ambassador to the United Nations, but that gives him just 17 years on the national stage. Certainly, Bush pere and Nixon were the two most experienced — and successful — presidential contenders of the last half-century of American politics.
John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee, was first elected to the US Senate in 1986. It’s hard to describe McCain as a national figure of the 1980s or even much until 1995, when he took a leading role in normalizing relations with Vietnam. But for the sake of argument, even McCain’s ‘national’ presence amounted to just 22 years when he was nominated. Similarly, Massachusetts senator John Kerry was elected to the Senate in 1986 — that gave him 18 years when he was nominated in 2004. Bob Dole, the 1996 nominee, was first elected to the Senate in 1968, which would have given him 28 years between his rise to national politics and his presidential nomination. Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, was first elected to the US Senate from Tennessee in 1982, giving him 18 years in the national spotlight, including his eight years as Bill Clinton’s vice president.
But, of course, we all know how things turned out for Dole, McCain, Gore and Kerry. And neither Bush pere nor Nixon ended their presidencies on their own terms, happily serving out two terms.
Except for Dole, Clinton has been part of the country’s most intense policy debates for even longer than any of them. That’s quite something in our disposable, digital Snapchat era. But it’s also a reminder that the coming general election will not be a cakewalk for the Democratic nominee. If she’s elected, it means that it could be even harder for her to remain the central figure of American politics until January 2025.