The Politics of Praising Hillary Clinton

January 29, 2013

The first time Hillary Clinton got widespread praise from Republicans was at the start of the 2008 general election.  In an attempt to attract female Democratic voters who were still bothered by the Obama-Clinton primary battle, Republicans began to say nice things about Senator Clinton.  It continued when McCain picked Gov. Sarah Palin, and Palin lobbed praise on the New York Democrat.  It was all an odd show -- there was never any chance liberal women were going to ignore the policy difference between the presidential nominees and vote for McCain-Palin.  As Professor Steven Taylor says in The Bigger Hammer, voters quickly concluded: "Sarah Palin, you're no Hillary Clinton."

The point is, it was all tactical niceness.  It's the same reason many Republican senators will today vote for, and praise, Sen. John Kerry as he is confirmed as Secretary of State.  The same man they ridiculed and reviled when he ran for president in 2004 is now a thoughtful leader.  For a variety of reasons, they wanted him to get that job instead of UN Ambassador Susan Rice, so Kerry was celebrated as a way of attacking Rice. In the bigger picture, both Clinton and Kerry were treated well because the Republican Party had a new First Enemy, President Obama.

The party that doesn't control the White House generally orients itself around disliking the sitting president. The same dynamic happened with the first President Bush. In office, he was a mean-spirited, incompetent leader. Once safely kicked out of Washington, he gradually became a figure Democrats could point back to as a "responsible Republican," in contrast to his son. While in office, President Bill Clinton was held by Republicans to be one of the most corrupt and contemptible figures in American history, but lately they've praised him as a way to contrast the economy on his watch with the current one.

The lesson is that momentary partisan attitudes should not guide us in judging the popularity of a public figure. We need to assess them over time, in different political circumstances, and try to judge how well their style and personality will sit with voters in the midst of a fierce election. Secretary Clinton's current standing -- very high approval rating and an almost non-partisan reputation while in the cabinet -- will change dramatically if she decides to run for president.  That hardly means she couldn't win, since both 2016 nominees will inevitably be the target of partisan loathing. But it does mean that her current political circumstances are mostly irrelevant to the question of her candidacy.  As I'm sure she knows better than anyone, her political profile as a candidate would much more resemble her time as First Lady and Senator than during the last four years.


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