Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years—or on another planet—you know who she is. And you probably have an opinion.
“I mean, not too many people with the one name, Hillary,” Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told CNN. “I guess a few others. Madonna, a few others … But everybody knows Hillary.”
That’s the blessing and the curse. Hillary Clinton does not start her campaign at the starting line, like most. She’s a woman who has written two autobiographies — one called “Living History”— and has a resume that checks almost every box, except the one she wants to check this time around: Madame President.
She’s been through it all, and then some. So it’s easy to ask why she would actually do this: another campaign, more targets on her back, the possibility it won’t succeed. Again.
But the tugs at Hillary Clinton to run are much stronger, as it turns out. The tug of the huge Clinton network. The tug of her husband, Bill Clinton. The tug of history as a woman, to be sure. And the tug of national service which, many point out, is what Hillary knows best.
“It’s not just ‘I have to do this, I have to make history, I have to be the big shot, they have to play Hail to the Chief when I walk in the room,’” says friend, adviser and fundraiser Paul Begala. “It’s really a sense that she’s got this agenda and this is the way to get it done.”
A lifetime preparing
California Sen. Diane Feinstein (D), who has known her for decades, puts it this way: “She doesn’t ‘need’ it. But she wants it. She’s put a lifetime of herself in a way in preparation for it.”
So it’s a decision that surprises absolutely no one — despite the fact everyone understands it’s not an easy undertaking — especially for a Clinton. But, as McAuliffe says, she’s been through some very dark days at the White House once before—and managed to survive, and even thrive. “It was tough,” he says. “This was about their family and she wanted to keep it about their family… You know when tough times come, she’s able to deal with it, deal with it herself and is able to continue to move on.”
Indeed, adds former Commerce Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, “I don’t know what they could say about her that hasn’t been said about her in the past in a negative sense. So, you know, she’s got a pretty strong shield around her.”
It’s a shield that can keep the voters at arm’s length, and that’s what worries the campaign. They understand that, after all these years in the public eye, there’s still something elusive about Hillary Clinton. “People who’ve never met either of them, [have a] very clear sense of who Bill Clinton is… They love him, they call him Bill. It’s like ‘yeah do you think he would like come and, you know, have a barbeque with us?’ With Hillary there is a distance,” Begala said.
The “real” Hillary
So the game plan is to have the voters meet the “real Hillary” – the warm one, virtually one-on-one. That way, the theory goes, the voters will be able to meet the Hillary her friends describe. She is, says McAuliffe, a “tremendous amount of fun…. She’s got a great belly laugh. She and I will sit out, you know, on vacation, talking policy. Might have a cocktail or two, you know, I mean she’s a load of fun to be with.”
In the end, adds Feinstein, “I think she’s a very complete person.” But what really counts, she adds, is the years she has put in. “I think the most important thing is what her experience has given her. You know, we have men who come here for one or two years, get a few puff pieces and they go out and they run for president.” Take that Paul, Rubio and Cruz.
Hillary Clinton’s story is long, and controversial and with it comes baggage, which she is also trying to shed. She encountered trouble from her time at the State Department during the email controversy. There are lingering descriptions of the Clintons as paranoid, too protected, even arrogant.
“I think the misconceptions, there are certain people that are fixed in those with those beliefs, and been in those for twenty-five years,” says Bill Daley. “You’re not going to change them…. What you’ve got to do is basically talk to the future about what you want to with the country.”
That seems to be the plan — and it is very different from her past unsuccessful attempt at winning. In 2008, Clinton ran on her past experience, and let the “woman thing” take a backseat.
“I do think the last time she ran they tried very hard to keep it a secret,” says Begala. “But she is a girl.”
A unified party
And this time, the Democrats have decided they’re (mostly) all in—practically parting the waters for her to run. It’s contrary to Democratic Party culture and practice, which normally all-but-disinherits a presidential candidate that has lost once before.
“That’s what’s weird,” says Begala. “The Democratic party, when you lose, you’re out. You go to like Eastern Massachusetts Tech and teach. And we never want to see you again. This is what’s so different, is that she has run and come up short, and yet they love her. She’s been on the scene for decades, and we (usually) want new, and yet they love her.”
At least they do now.
“This is a well-tested, well-proven, well-known and well-liked [candidate],” adds Bill Daley. “It’s not as though you’re trying to shove something down the mouths of the Democratic Party.” Indeed, among Democrats, Clinton starts out with an 86 percent approval rating, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll. “So, if you were thinking about challenging that, why would you do that? Who’s the genius that would go out and do that?”
As it turns out, not many.
And here’s a key reason why: history. Democrats do not need any reminding that Hillary Clinton could become the nation’s first female commander-in-chief. And neither does she. “I think she knows she carries the cause,” says Sen. Feinstein. “And if a very qualified woman can hold that job, and perform well… that’s a big thing.”
And will it be harder for a woman to run, even in 2016? “Oh I think it is harder. And I think she knows it’s harder,” says Feinstein. “And women are tested in ways that men are not. And that’s another discussion.”