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The inevitable Democrat?

Spencer KimballApril 13, 2015

To the surprise of nobody, Hillary Clinton has announced that she's running for president. Though she has a clear path to the Democratic nomination, she runs the risk of taking her most-favored status for granted.

Hillary Clinton
Image: Reuters/Munoz

It's her second bid to become the first female president in US history. But this time, Hillary Rodham Clinton has the experience of a failed primary campaign to help guide her strategy.

And her supporters believe they have the winning issues. In a nation where politics are increasingly defined by historic levels of income inequality, Clinton will focus her rhetoric on expanding economic opportunities for middle and working class families.

"Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top," she said in a video posted on her website, announcing the her bid.

"Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion. So you can do more than just get by - you can get ahead and stay ahead," she added.

Clinton is scheduled to meet with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in the coming weeks, the first two states in the primary process. Though her nomination is no certainty, she is the only Democrat to have officially announced and her chances look favorable compared to other figures in the party who are considering a run.

"She is as close to inevitable as anybody who isn't a sitting president has ever been," Chris Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, told DW.

"Since the 2008 campaign, especially since leaving the secretary of state position, she has done everything you can do to get close to locking the nomination up before the primaries actually begin," he added.

Mending fences

Hillary Clinton Barack Obama 2007
Clinton was overshadowed by Obama in the 2008 presidential electionImage: Reuters/Larry Downing

But back in 2008, many commentators also thought that Clinton was the most likely Democratic nominee among a crowded field that included Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Edwards. Facing an electorate tired of seeing American blood spilled in Iraq and nervous about an economy teetering on the brink of collapse, her candidacy at that time was weakened by her vote to authorize the war in 2003 and the perception that she was cozy with big business interests.

Obama, then a dark horse novice from Illinois, was able to act as a foil to her establishment weaknesses. He had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning and promised to usher in a new America that celebrated cultural diversity, social justice and economic prosperity.

Most importantly, he had no real record to speak of and could serve as blank slate upon which voters could project their dreams about the future. With these strengths and a highly organized and energized grassroots campaign, he was able to win the first primary in the state of Iowa, making him a serious challenger.

As other candidates were weeded out and the fight was narrowed down to Obama and Clinton, the rhetoric got very ugly. The party was split between those who wanted change, represented rightly or wrongly by Obama, and those who valued experience, represented rightly or wrongly by Clinton. The motto of "change" won the day.

But according to Galdieri, Clinton and Obama have gone a long way since 2008, building bridges and mending fences for the good of their party.

"If you are somebody who supported Obama over Clinton in 2008, after the election you saw her joining his administration; you've seen her be very supportive of his goals; and you've seen President Obama speak very well of her," he said.

Lack of alternatives

Clinton's main base of support within the party comes from working class white voters, union members as well as party moderates and conservatives in regions like America's historic industrial heartland, known as the Rust Belt, as well as the South and the Appalachian Mountains region.

And for young voters, anti-war liberals, African-Americans and Latinos who served as Obama's base and helped carry him to victory in 2008, there simply isn't a viable alternative in the Democratic Party to the left of Clinton at the moment.

Though there's been an effort to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor from Massachusetts who's developed a record of challenging corruption and manipulation of the democratic process, she's repeatedly said she's not running.

All the other politicians who are openly considering throwing their hat in the ring have their own weaknesses. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is an independent and self-proclaimed socialist in a nation where the word is normally hurled as an insult. Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has few real policy differences with Clinton. And Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, is to the right of Clinton on many issues.

"They are serious candidates but Clinton does seem to be sucking a lot of air out of the room," Donna Hoffman, a professor of politics at the University of Northern Iowa, told DW. "The remaining Democrats who have maybe wanted to run have been weighing their calculations in terms of what Clinton will or won't do."

Potential controversies

Clinton has a long political history, dating back to the 1990s when her husband Bill was president for eight years and she was first lady, running through her tenure as a New York senator from 2001-2009, and ending with her most recent post as secretary of state. That history could serve as both a strength, demonstrating her experience, but also as a weakness due to some of the controversies surrounding her.

attack on the US consulate in Benghazi
Clinton came under sharp criticism for her reaction to the 2012 attack on the US consulate in BenghaziImage: Reuters

She has come under sharp criticism from conservative Republicans for her performance as secretary of state during the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack.

Some Republicans have accused her and the Obama administration of not properly securing the facility from the start, responding slowly and then spinning the premeditated attack by Islamist militants as a protest that turned violent. But last November, a bipartisan congressional commission found that there was no attempt by the administration to cover up what happened at Benghazi.

A new controversy has now emerged over Clinton's emails from her time as the top US diplomat. She opted to use her personal email account instead of a government one, raising questions about whether her messages were secure and if she followed protocol for archiving her correspondence.

Clinton provided the State Department with 55,000 pages of emails pertaining to her work as secretary of state. But she deleted emails that she deemed personal, raising questions about whether correspondence relevant to the public interest was also erased. A House commission has filed a subpoena seeking her emails related to the Benghazi attack.

Hillary Clinton with her smartphone
Clinton's email use during her time as secretary of state has come under fireImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

But according to Galdieri, other candidates in the primary are unlikely to attack Clinton over these controversies, which many Democrats believe are publicly exaggerated by Republicans for partisan purposes. By the time the general election rolls around, even if the Republican contender raises these issues, the public might not be particularly interested anymore.

"It will probably come up in the general election," Galdieri said. "But generally in presidential elections, once the candidates are nominated the cake is 90 percent baked. The election is probably not going to be about Hillary Clinton's email, it's going to be about what's the state of the economy like, what's the state of the world like."