Hillary watches from the wings | Transatlantic Voices | DW | 28.02.2013
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Transatlantic Voices

Hillary watches from the wings

As US Secretary of State John Kerry makes his way through Europe and the Middle East, you wonder what his predecessor is thinking. In fact, Hillary Clinton is likely harboring greater ambitions, says Volker Depkat.

Will she do it? Will Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016? This question was in the room before President Barack Obama had spoken the last words of his oath of office on January 20. Should she do it, it would hardly come as a surprise.

Hillary Clinton's marriage with Bill is, whatever else it may be, a political partnership unseen since the days of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. In contrast to the Roosevelts, however, career-promotion in the case of the Clintons works both ways: In the 1980/90s they teamed up to make Bill president, and once in the White House, Hillary Clinton was one of the politically most active First Ladies ever.

She insisted on having her own office in the West Wing of the White House, instead of operating from the building's East Wing, where the First Ladies and their staffs traditionally had had their space since the Truman administration. The West Wing is the White House's political center of gravity; it is where the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room and the Situation Room for top-secret meetings are located.

Here, the political decisions are taken, and here Hillary Clinton wanted to sit. Like no First Lady before her, she considered herself the political partner of her husband. The ill-fated attempt at health care reform was pretty much her baby: She headed the health care task force implemented by President Clinton less than a week after his inauguration in January 1993. Afterwards, Hillary Clinton continued to get involved in many other political issues so that, when she left the White House, she had really made her political mark.

After the end of her husband Bill's presidency, Hillary Clinton systematically took all the necessary steps to further her profile as an independent politician. Now helped by Bill, Hillary Clinton served two terms as senator of New York. Furthermore, she published her bestselling autobiography "Living History" in 2003, which, of course, served the function of defining her political agenda. German politicians planning to run for a high office write a party manifesto, American politicians write autobiographies to validate their political program.

In 2008 she unsuccessfully sought her party's nomination as presidential candidate, and then soldiered on to serve quite successfully as US Secretary of State under President Barack Obama, her former opponent. After President Obama's first term, she resigned as US Secretary of State and it is more than likely that she did so to buy time for preparing her second presidential bid in 2016. She would be 69 then, the same age as Ronald Reagan when he was inaugurated president in 1981.

Will she or won't she?

Should she do it - would the Republicans like it? Would they welcome Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate? Certainly, she would be easy to polarize against because she represents everything that America's conservatives despise and reject: She is a successful career woman who, once in the White House, refused to be relegated to the traditional roles of the First Lady as mother of the nation, comforter of her husband and family, manager of the presidential household and hostess of official events. She wanted and got direct political influence, and she was viciously attacked for it by conservative America.

Volker Depkat, political expert

Volker Depkat

The way she defined her role as First Lady generated much controversy and confusion also because it seemed to be a slap in the hockey moms' faces, undermining supposedly traditional family values. Three years into the Clinton presidency Hillary Clinton released her book "It takes a Village," which was her credo of how to raise children in today's world. Arguing that parents and the greater community, the village, all shape the lives of children, she implicitly rejected the normative ideal of heterosexual nuclear families of married couples as the only pillar of society.

As so much about the current divisions and culture wars in American politics revolves around morality and family issues, this book may have been the single most important cause for making Hillary Clinton the target of conservative contempt. Ever since the 1990s, America's conservatives have hated the Clintons for the lifestyle they represent: open-minded, liberal, with a clear view on the realities of today's open, pluralistic and individualistic societies.

Polarizing force

Hillary Clinton thus polarizes and would be easy to polarize against. Shouldn't the Republicans like that? Wouldn't a presidential contender like Hillary Clinton unite the conservative camp and help garner votes in the middle, where US elections are still being decided? In 1972, Richard Nixon embarked on a secret policy of dirty tricks to influence the primaries of the Democratic Party in a way that would ensure the nomination of George McGovern, the most liberal candidate in the field, because the self-declared spokesman of the "silent majority" of white middle-class America, Richard Nixon, wanted to have somebody to polarize against.

In 2016, Republicans might get a liberal candidate without having to commit crimes and other misdemeanors at all. The question, however, is - will they still want it? Mitt Romney's disastrous presidential campaign, drawing on the heartland values of an essentially white, Anglo-Saxon and protestant middle class, most likely was the last hurrah of the old-style Republican politics forged by Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan.

The influence of the Tea Party Movement, which has always been more an enemy of the moderates in the Republican Party than of the liberals among the Democrats, is waning. With the rise of Asian and - most importantly - Hispanic communities, the ethno-cultural structure of America's electorate is undergoing deep demographic changes that led many a commentator to speak of the rapid de-Europeanization of American culture.

This transformation is in full swing and it demands new political answers - answers that the Republicans, catering to the white heartland and the 53 percent of Americans who supposedly pay federal income tax, were unable to give in 2012. More of the same, therefore, may not be what Republicans want to do in four years, should they have to run against one of the most outspokenly liberal and feminist politicians in the village - Hillary Clinton.

Volker Depkat is Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria.

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