Hillary Clinton is a seasoned politician with a sound academic background and has served in politics as first lady, senator, and secretary of state. That wasn't enough, however, to ensure her victory against the controversial real estate mogul Donald Trump, who gave his victory speech in New York City in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Despite resounding support from her party and even many prominent Republicans, she lost the United States presidential election decisively.
The 68-year-old Democrat has worked towards her ambition of becoming the US president for years. Ultimately, however, her tenacity did not pay off. To the contrary, her many critics have long described her extensive experience as her Achilles’ heel. For her supporters, the US has missed its first real chance to have a woman president, and many are questioning the extent to which her gender contributed to her punishing loss at the polls. For her critics, Clinton has come to represent the very establishment that many voters - including many people who had long supported the Democratic Party - wanted to somehow express their frustration against.
Strong appeals by the Clinton campaign urging African-American, Hispanic and other minority voters in key swing states such as Florida and Nevada to support the candidate were not enough to allow her to repeat Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential victories.
Throughout the campaign, she has evolved as a candidate, making adjustments according to shifting political winds. Look at how many times she changed her campaign slogan. First it was “breaking down barriers” and “fighting for us” and then “I’m with her.” All these proved effective to defeat Bernie Sanders, her rival in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders' insurgent challenge to Clinton's campaign, however, surprised the Democratic establishment with its success at awakening widespread grassroots support, and revealed a sharp divide within the party. Finally, she came up with “stronger together,” pitching it against her rival Republican candidate Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
From Clinton’s changing slogans, one can trace the path that brought her close to presidency. To the US public, she is either a political fanatic who aggressively pursued her political goals, or a dubious lawmaker who survived four decades of politics, deploying criticism, analysis, speculation - anything at her disposal - to wield influence on a counterpart. But a close look at her career reveals that she is neither of the two. Rather, she is somewhere in the middle. A politician who knows how to navigate through delicate national and international tensions, even if it meant a retreat.
Since the mid-1990s, when her husband Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the US, was close to completing his second term, she navigated various controversies, including her husband’s illicit relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and the so-called Whitewater affair. More recent, right-wing commentators blamed her for the fatal attack on the September 2012 US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, and, most recently, of an “email scandal.”
Clinton, however, never yielded to public criticism. She dealt with all the controversies either putting up a brave face, or adopting a softer approach.
In a 1998 interview she dismissed the Lewinsky scandal as a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” The same year, she and her husband came out clean from Whitewater investigation. In 2012, she initially refused to explain what happened in Libya’s city of Benghazi, where four Americans including the stationed ambassador, were killed in a militant ambush. She warded off criticism taking responsibility for the security lapse, not as an individual but as secretary of state, which involves the entire foreign policy institution.
By August, as the issue refused to die, she promptly corrected course. Her use of a private email server for official communication between 2008 and 2013 had came under FBI scrutiny, causing doubts over her role as secretary of state. Trump aggressively used the issue to score political points against her.
In September, she admitted that it was a “mistake” to not use the official email server for formal communication, and tendered an apology. She, however, was quick to add a caveat—that she never put any classified information at risk.
Her apology appeared to concede, even for some pro-Clinton donors and activists, that the controversy was not entirely a Republican hit job. Later, leaked email communications between her top campaign strategists revealed that the apology was aimed at taking “air out of [the controversy].” The strategists believed Hillary’s inability to express “remorse and regret” was becoming a “character problem.” It’s hard to tell if the plan helped her earn political dividends but it shows her as a politician who’s willing to bend in certain situations.
A bruising race
Besides tackling the issues from her past dealings, Clinton found herself facing off against Trump, an unorthodox candidate who emerged out of nowhere and threw political conventions to the wind. He surprised the world by winning the Republican presidential nomination, defeating 16 candidates, including conservative heavyweights like US senator Ted Cruz.
Trump’s political rhetoric soon began to antagonise many American voters: Muslims, Hispanics, Blacks, Mexican immigrants, but it also successfully rallied impassioned conservatives behind him. His first outrageous remark—that he would build a wall on the US border to avert illegal crossings from Mexico if he was voted to power—and then his insensitive attitude toward women and Muslims and other disadvantaged communities continually haunted his campaign.
While many Republicans in Congress cold shouldered Trump, Clinton gained support from key Democrats, including President Obama, and Bernie Sanders, who endorsed her following his defeat in Democratic presidential nomination.
While countering Trump in presidential debates, she used her most potent weapon—criticism backed by hard facts. She didn’t shy away from portraying him as a fear monger, a political misfit, who lacked the composure of a leader and whose values were so un-American.
It wasn’t just Trump’s controversial ideas and factually compromised rhetoric that worked in Clinton’s favour. Hillary had done her preparations—a habit she’d developed in her youth.
From first lady to presidential contender
Born in October 1947 in Chicago, Clinton attended Wellesley College in the late 1960s, when the political conversation was determined by recently concluded war in Vietnam. As president of the student government at Wellesley, Clinton struck a chord with her cohorts as she spoke about achieving the “impossible.” She openly challenged campus parochialism saying such attitudes were turning women into “cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18.”
With her academic prowess and political activism, she went on to Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton. In 1975, Hillary and Bill got married. Ever since, the couple worked closely to move up the political ladder, with her husband becoming US president in 1993.
In the White House, Clinton didn’t come across as a regular first lady. Unlike most of her predecessors, who stayed out of administrative matters, Clinton engaged with Congressional Republicans and White House aides on hard policy questions. In 1994, she was part of a special team assigned to craft a Health Care Reform bill, which later earned the nickname “Hillarycare.” Though the bill couldn’t pass through Congress, Clinton bedazzled many Congressmen with her social and legal understanding. Her experience as a lawyer and a political activist gave her arguments a fine balance.
She supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but later distanced herself from the way Pentagon dealt with the conflict, and called for the withdrawal of US troops.
In 2008, she lost the Democratic nomination for president to Barack Obama. Though Richard Holbrooke, former US envoy to Afghanistan, jockeyed for the Secretary of State post, President Obama chose Clinton.
As secretary of state, Hillary’s foreign policy instincts were often at odds with President Obama's. While Obama believed in decreasing the presence of US military offshore, Clinton was more hawkish. Instead of soft peddling with Russia, she has proposed to harden the US stance on Russia.
Final campaign push
For once during the campaign, Clinton’s invincibility seemed on the wane when she fell sick at a 9/11 memorial service. Later, her campaign organisers announced she was suffering from pneumonia.
Trump, who’d grown fatigued by taking severe criticism, tried to gain political mileage from her illness. He said she was physically unfit for the presidential post. Clinton hit back. She returned to the campaign trail, sounding refreshed in Wellesley, where she rocked the stage with her words: “Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything. We've had lots of empathy; we've had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practise politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”
On election day, however, it was Trump, rather than Clinton, who managed to achieve that.
Author: Mehboob Jeelani