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Hillary's challenge

The Democratic frontrunner has no compelling message for why she wants to be president

By Walter S. MontaƱo

Every semester I ask my college students an important question: Who was the last true modern-day statesman or stateswoman in America? Usually, I receive blank stares or puzzled looks, as if I were asking a trick question. The fact is most millennials don’t know how to answer the question because they don’t understand the question.

After all, they have not recognised a real leader in recent decades. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are figures too distant to be considered. The question is difficult to answer because most Americans today have not witnessed a Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or even a Dwight Eisenhower in our lifetimes.

Which brings us to Hillary Clinton’s official announcement to run for president this week. The first question that comes to mind is how can this campaign, or the candidate herself, be truly different from the Hillary Americans have known all too well since 1992 when her husband Bill won the White House? Can Hillary usher in a New Hillary and a new era of trust in government? Can she get both sides of politics to reach meaningful compromise over keynote legislation — something Barack Obama has not been able to do? Can she bind the nation’s wounds and be a transformational president when the history books are finally written?

The average Americans featured in her two-and-half minute video campaign launch were people facing normal, daily challenges. Hillary’s point was to cast herself as a normal hardworking person fighting for middle-income Americans who have experienced stagnant wage growth over the past 15 years. Think of Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 when the Gipper called average Americans “heroes.” But what about the vast problems and challenges the United States faces abroad? Clinton made no mention of international relations whatsoever. Never mind that she ran US foreign policy at the State Department from 2009 to 2013.

So, is this truly a new beginning for Hillary? Are the millennials “ready for Hillary”? Are they excited about her prospects? Can they relate to her? Is Clinton capable of being a transformational figure like a Kennedy or Reagan? Can she finally put politics aside and govern effectively?

Thus far she has proven to be average as a campaigner and fairly average as a politician. Is there something we’ve been missing? Like real pioneers in history, do we know what she stands for and why precisely she runs for high office? And is this good enough reason to hop on the Hillary bandwagon? Does she have the necessary tools to unite her party and the country at a time of economic stagnation at home and rising instability and violence abroad?

When Clinton is usually mentioned in conversation among ordinary Americans, especially college-age millennials, the responses are not overly enthusiastic. When Americans consider a stateswoman of their time, they have a difficult time anointing Clinton because she has not come close to embodying change or even effecting change, let alone explaining how she plans to push for fundamental adjustments and corrections as president. One cannot fault the erstwhile First Lady–turned-Senator-turned–Secretary of State. Her style has never been one to inspire, given her history of controversy. But does she deserve a fair go?

Like Richard Nixon, no stranger to defeat and controversy, can Hillary carve out a New and Improved Hillary 2016, just as the New Nixon proved successful in 1968? The country has mixed feelings about her sincerity, especially when it comes to politics, and the rancour that exists inside the Clinton machine. Like Nixon, the Clintons, particularly Hillary, are very much not enamoured with the press, and see everything through a prism of power and influence. If Obama as an outsider was unable to change Washington, how can Clinton, as the quintessential insider do any different? It begs the question: how can Secretary Clinton epitomise a new era when she is part of the old?

Such confusion, however, is precisely what clouds much of the political landscape in 2016. Now that candidates from both political parties are declaring their candidacies, one longs to be inspired by the choices facing Americans in November 2016. Scanning the list of hopefuls, however, one cannot help but wonder why none of the candidates — in either party — arouses hope in the political future, much less any real inspiration.

The question is: Why? Why has Hillary, after all the hoopla surrounding her candidacy, not been able to ignite a serious transformational agenda or genuine excitement outside her political base? Will she do something remarkable in the months ahead to prove her detractors wrong?

The choices on either side of the aisle are slim, stale, and anything but sound. After the dashed hopes of the Obama years, Americans are hungering for a real statesman or stateswoman from either party to set out a new vision for the country. Obama has failed to master the trade of politics, but he’s managed to put together a very active package in his last two years, one he hopes will carve and form his own political legacy. The fact he tied his political fortunes abroad to Clinton early says a lot for his confidence in her. What John Kerry has aimed for versus what Hillary targeted is a different thing altogether. An attempt at bringing long-term peace to the Middle East — for better or worse — is what has defined the Obama–Kerry team.

Can the same be said for the Obama–Clinton team of 2009–2013? Hardly. The stateswoman most expected to come out of Foggy Bottom was nowhere to be found. We saw instead a couple controversies not normally associated with a secretary of state aiming to be labelled a stateswoman; Clinton departed under a cloud.

What is Clinton’s legacy as Secretary of State? Her detractors insist on Benghazi. Her proponents genuinely have a difficult time answering that question because there is no significant achievement for which one can give her credit. And, now that her emails and her record are a controversy in and of themselves, one will forever wonder what went on behind the scenes while Clinton was running the State Department.

Most Americans don’t desire the dynastic quality American politics has had over the past 50 years (the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Bush clan, and now the Clintons). While a Bush–Clinton race might excite the media, the electorate would largely be skeptical.

The dearth of quality candidates in both parties is heartbreaking. Just as Clinton has announced her new candidacy, we are faced with the belief once again that US elections are a race to see who can raise the most campaign funds without offering new and refreshing or even reasonable ideas that will keep the country moving forward towards solid ground. Obama was clearly elected thanks to his popularity and his ability to raise funds. Clinton has the latter down, but not necessarily the former.

Is this truly a new beginning for Hillary? It would appear not. Despite this week’s campaign announcement, which focused on a variety of people facing different issues, her approach seemed too broad, as if she could deliver on any and all problems without offering a detailed plan. There is no doubt that with this second candidacy (Hillary 2.0, or Hillary Reset, as some might call it), expectations are even higher for Clinton to proffer real solutions to the many challenges facing the nation. The media is already setting certain parameters and it will be on the Clinton campaign to prove it is authentic and that it is focused on not only campaigning but on governing.

The problem once again centres on whether Clinton can come up with something new and exciting that will entice voters and that will showcase her acumen as a policy person who likes to wrestle with the issues. As First Lady, her primary challenge, healthcare, resulted in nothing remarkable and as senator, she was not able to pursue a path that challenged her predecessor, the ever valiant and inspiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As secretary of state for four years, she was given no serious tasks beyond relentlessly travelling the world; the so-called achievements have seemingly been left to her successor.

The consensus among millennials is that Hillary does not represent them well. They feel disconnected from her. Perhaps the explanation has to do with the fact that 20-somethings don’t really remember the Clinton years. It could also have to do with Clinton being nearly 70 years old and a grandmother. Or perhaps it's because, like Bill, she's scripted, but unlike her husband, she's unnatural and lacks charm and personality. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is the darling of America’s left-liberals; if she were running, she would have an army of college students supporting her.

What has Warren said or done that Hillary has not? Both Warren and Clinton are roughly the same age (65 and 67 respectively), both well respected, but one excites the left within the party, as well as its base, while the other does not. Hillary’s Luddite qualities (she purportedly used only one personal email account to simplify matters at State; and she hasn’t driven a car in nearly 20 years) do not sit well with younger voters. Her own daughter, Chelsea, is already significantly older than her millennial peers, something that younger millennials will note. Clinton will need to work harder for votes if she is to secure any type of victory on the way to the White House. She does not equate with youth, which will be a challenge for her and her campaign. The throngs of youth that flooded the Obama campaign is what Clinton covets: can her team be smart enough in capturing young minds with newer and brighter ideas?

Is Clinton in the same league as John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan? JFK embodied youth, a “new frontier,” and the future. As a young and hip 43-year-old newly elected president, he had a stellar relationship with the press, despite his own controversies (religion, naïveté, inexperience) as well as his own health difficulties and not problems in foreign affairs. The fact he still managed to be labelled a success and a near-great president says a lot. He’s clearly the most popular president of the past 60 years.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was the opposite of JFK in age (elected at 69). However, the energy and vibrancy Reagan brought to the Oval Office in the midst of several challenges following the post-Vietnam 1970s left a legacy few can match. Known as the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan is the only other president, with Kennedy and Nixon, who could be called truly transformational in the past six decades.

This was a controversy in the campaign between Clinton and Obama in 2007–08, when Clinton demeaned Obama when he argued that Reagan— for better or worse — effected change and was indeed, “transformational.” Clinton should hope to emulate Reagan as much as possible given their similarity in age. If she were elected, she would be the second eldest president (after Reagan) to be elected, as opposed to Kennedy who was the second youngest.

Clinton needs to plan to do things very differently if she’s to be labelled a Kennedy or even a Reagan. Most agree that popularity in office, particularly with the press, would be her biggest challenge. She lacks the political acumen and skill of her husband and her sole goal at this stage is to be likeable. Is she even close to this label this early in the game? The next few months will prove whether she is up to this challenge.

Is Clinton a real pioneer for women? One of her more redeeming qualities is that women all over the world adore her. Can she leverage this love into a love affair with the American public? Can she unify the country? Can she shed her past and be a truly great commander in chief, and yes, a stateswoman? Is it in her DNA to be the Lincoln of our time?

Often called the last founding father, Abraham Lincoln is still considered the greatest American president. This week marks the 150th anniversary of his tragic passing and Washington is commemorating Abraham Lincoln and his legacy on the streets, particularly outside Ford’s Theatre where he was assassinated. An overnight vigil was held, along with historians weighing in on one of the bigger tragedies in American history. What better way to juxtapose the record of a true statesman and political forerunner with an overpowering legacy with someone who aims to be just that, especially for women everywhere. 

Both Lincoln and Clinton hail from Illinois, both were controversial figures and heavily criticised while in office, and both politically ambitious and lauded for being political pioneers: Lincoln, the first Republican Party president and Clinton, the woman to get closest to the White House and nearly break that proverbial glass ceiling she mentioned back in 2008 upon conceding to Obama.

But the comparisons between Lincoln and Clinton end there. Despite how great Hillary’s proponents think she may be, she has not been a unifying figure. Scandal has followed her and her temperament has never been one to fit the mould of a great compromiser or policy stalwart who can find solutions to the country’s most glaring problems. 

If Hillary Clinton is to be judged by anything, it is by what she believes in, what she stands for, and what she has done — along with her record. The problem is, it is extremely difficult to pin down any of those categories when thinking about what a Hillary Clinton campaign and presidency means. Clinton the woman candidate still brings enormous expectations to the table. But when one juxtaposes her with real pioneers in her past, one fails to see the fire in her eye, the attention to detail, the true desire to come to terms with solutions desperately needed both within the United States and across the world. Given her limited achievements in high office, one is “ready for Hillary” so one can finally see what the fuss is all about.

So here is the challenge for the Clinton campaign: be genuine, and conduct your affairs for all the right reasons with the best interest of the people to heart. Show some gumption; demonstrate the authentic passion that a current female senator from Massachusetts and an older senator from Vermont consistently show. When you speak, ensure people do not doubt what you believe and what drives them. Just as we do not doubt Lincoln’s motives and his intentions and especially his legacy all these years later, our expectation as a people is that the first woman president would live up to that role. Our expectations should be high and most importantly, our expectations should be met.

The first woman president is something special and it is a title to be truly earned and not assumed. There is no doubt whatsoever that 150 years later, Abraham Lincoln and the founders he represented would concur. It is time for her to show why she deserves the presidency and why she can be trusted to serve in one of the more prestigious positions in government within the developed world. She owes the American people at least that much.