Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Hillary Clinton and the experience trap

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Mon April 8, 2013
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years:
HIDE CAPTION
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate in 2016
  • Zelizer: But Clinton has to be careful, as her experience can turned into a liability by rivals
  • He says Clinton needs to sell her skills as well as keep her candidacy exciting and fresh
  • Zelizer: The former first lady has an impressive story to tell but can't let others define her

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2016. After suffering through an extremely difficult loss in the primaries against Barack Obama, Clinton has managed to strengthen her resume.

As secretary of state, she improved her standing on foreign policy and earned more respect among Democrats who had been skeptical of her positions ever since her vote on the resolution to authorize force in Iraq in 2002.

The press has been showering praise on Clinton in recent months. Even though the next presidential election is more than three years away, there have been numerous stories about how Clinton can dominate the nomination process. Polls show that she comes out ahead of most Democrats as well as prominent Republicans, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

One poll conducted by the Washington Post found that 67% of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton. The Ready for Hillary super PAC has already launched its website.

"We are going to keep up the energy and excitement surrounding her potential candidacy," said the PAC's chairwoman, Allida Black. There have even been articles about why she is not the inevitable candidate, the kind of discussion that only tends to fuel the perception that she is at the top of the heap.

Bill Clinton hints at run for Hillary

But Clinton needs to be careful. In 2008, Barack Obama turned Clinton's experience as first lady and senator into a liability. Back then, Clinton was also seen as the experienced candidate who would inevitably win the nomination.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



When Clinton won the New Hampshire primary after a stunning loss in Iowa, many reporters credited her experience. Clinton did not back away from this image. "I put forth my lifetime of experience," she said. "Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002."

Sensing the mood of the Democratic electorate, Obama capitalized on the fact that he was not a Washington insider. He aggressively attacked Clinton by depicting her as the quintessential politician who was shaped by the Beltway, someone who voters could not trust to keep her word, and a Democrat who would certainly disappoint loyal members of the party by sticking to the status quo.

While Clinton's supporters boasted that no other candidate matched her skills, with each Obama victory, the press became more excited about the unexpected turn in the contest.

Hillary Clinton mania sweeps media
Baer: Natural fascination with Clintons
Hillary Clinton re-emerges

Obama did what Jimmy Carter did in 1976, when he took on Washington heavyweights such as Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Morris Udall by making experience a bad word. Ronald Reagan did the same to his Republican opponents in 1980, including George H.W. Bush, whose sterling record turned into a huge liability with primary voters.

In an era when voters distrust the government, they can often see value in the person with less experience in the system. And in an era when reporters cover elections like horse races, the underdog is often the most exciting person to write about.

Of course, Clinton was anything but "just" a Washington insider. That image was as much the creation of her opponent's political campaign as her own.

Opinion: Hillary Clinton, a mistake for 2016

Her campaign could easily have depicted her as someone who would be a fresh voice in Washington -- the first female president, a person who had struggled to make the role of the first lady something bigger, a fighter who had taken on the aggressive conservative establishment, even as her husband betrayed her before the public eye.

While in the Senate, Clinton displayed remarkable skills at winning over support among many skeptics, including Republicans who had once fought to impeach her husband. Yes, this is about experience in Washington, but her success was also a considerable asset that few politicians possess.

With all the praise that is being showered on her potential candidacy, it's easy to see Clinton facing the same challenges if she decides to run in 2016. Clinton will have to remember the lessons of 2008.

Clinton certainly deserves all the positive coverage, but she can't let it define her. For if she does decide to declare her candidacy, there might be so little excitement left by the time that it is made that the media will turn their attention to any fresh voice, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is an extremely potent politician.

The narrative that campaigns tell about a candidate plays a huge role in the outcome of a contest.

Clinton has an impressive story to tell. She has championed women's rights for decades. She embodies the drive for female equality by shattering many glass ceilings. She has deep political experiences at home and abroad. More than anyone at the moment, she has the potential to be America's female president.

If she runs, Clinton needs to make sure that her Democratic as well as Republican opponents don't turn her strength into a weakness once again.

Clinton needs to find the right balance between selling her experiences and skills and keeping the excitement that her candidacy could bring to a Democratic ticket. She needs to sell the message that her candidacy is distinct and historic. And if she could bring enthusiastic and idealistic supporters to the ballot box just as Obama was able to do, then she has a chance to truly make history.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 2:04 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT