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Hillary Clinton hobbled by her 'unremarkable' campaigning

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, seen making a speech in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 5, lost the New Hampshire Democratic primary but still holds a substantial lead incommitted delegate support.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

More than four decades ago, Hillary Rodham, then a recent Yale law school graduate with a boyfriend named Bill Clinton, headed for Washington seeking a foothold in the American political class.

In 1974, she spent a few months on the House of Congress Judiciary Committee impeachment staff investigating then-president Richard Nixon before following Mr. Clinton to Arkansas. Ever since, she has held a long succession of more prominent and powerful roles.

Now, for the second time, Hillary Clinton, 68, a former first lady, a former secretary of state, a former New York senator, a former first lady of Arkansas, a former co-president (according to husband Bill, who was elected twice), wants to return to the White House as the first female president of the world's sole remaining superpower.

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In 1992, when Mr. Clinton was Arkansas governor and running for president, he promised Americans that if they backed him, they would "get two for the price of one," referring to his accomplished and intelligent wife. But the power couple possessed different strengths: Bill was the smoothly persuasive politician; Hillary was the policy wonk.

Despite an impressive résumé – she has penned a New York Times bestseller memoir, Hard Choices; won a Grammy for the audio recording of It Takes a Village, her book about raising children; made millions giving speeches to wealthy audiences, and was the first woman named to the Wal-Mart board of directors – Ms. Clinton hasn't succeeded much as a pure politician.

Between 1968, when she was elected president of the Wellesley College Government Association during her third year at university, and 2000, when Daniel Moynihan, the four-term Democratic senator from New York conveniently announced he was retiring, leaving an empty seat open for the first lady, Ms. Clinton never ran for elective office.

In solidly Democratic New York state, she still had to fend off accusations that she was a carpetbagger, given that the Clintons had just bought their mansion in Chappaqua, N.Y., but she won – as expected – easily.

She won re-election with an even bigger majority six years later, but the legislative record of the junior senator from New York is so slim that Ms. Clinton rarely refers to it. Her most memorable vote – as Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described socialist who just finished drubbing her in the New Hampshire primary, is fond off reminding her – was to back president George W. Bush's 2003 war against Iraq.

In fact, Ms. Clinton's first seriously contested election came in 2008, during the Democratic primaries. Then, as now, she was the presumptive front-runner, the candidate with the unmatched name recognition, the most money and the backing of most of the party bigwigs.

But she proved to be a wooden, ineffective campaigner. Barack Obama, the young, charismatic, telegenic alternative with a message of hope and change – and the Democrat who, like Mr. Sanders, was among the few to oppose the Iraq war – trounced her. Even unleashing Bill, a formidable campaigner and, then at least, a much-loved figure among African-Americans and Hispanics, failed to compensate for Ms. Clinton's often shrill, seldom endearing style of campaigning.

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Eight years later, Ms. Clinton's bid to get back to the Oval Office seems like a rerun, except this time her Democratic opponent is older, less telegenic and far further out on the leftist fringe of the party than Mr. Obama was.

So the odds-on bet is still that Ms. Clinton will succeed in 2016 where she failed in 2008. The conventional political wisdom holds that – starting with the next two primaries in Nevada and South Carolina – the Clinton machine, with its presumed capacity to deliver votes from African-Americans and Hispanics, will get her back on track to win the nomination.

Further, the Clintons have a second so-called firewall of superdelegates. There are 712 superdelegates – party luminaries, elected officials and others. Together, they form 15 per cent of the total number of delegates. The Democratic establishment invented superdelegates precisely to tip the balance back to a centrist candidate if party faithful seemed bent on repeating the mistake of 1972, when they selected George McGovern, a Second World War hero who wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of Vietnam war, a stance sufficiently outside the mainstream that he lost 49 of 50 states to Republican Richard Nixon.

Despite a virtual tie in Iowa and a 22-point win in New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders currently trails Ms. Clinton 44-394 because of already committed superdelegates. That may prove an insurmountable gap for him to close, especially once the contest moves to multi-state primary dates.

But the stark lessons from the first two states will not disappear even if Ms. Clinton wins the Democratic nomination.

Exit polls showed that she lost to Mr. Sanders among the poor and the middle class, winning only among the richest voters in families earning more the $200,000 annually.

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Far more worrisome for Ms. Clinton is that Mr. Sanders beat her handily among women in every age cohort except those over 55. Among young women, his margin was 4-1.

Ms. Clinton often sounds like she is touting her résumé as though she is applying for the job of chief executive officer of the United States. "I'm not asking people to support me because I'm a woman. I'm asking people to support me because I think I'm the most qualified, experienced and ready person to be the president and the commander-in-chief," she says.

It's the pitch of a policy-maker, not the siren song of a politician.

If the Clinton campaign is largely hobbled by her own vulnerabilities and policy-wonk approach to campaigning, it will only get much, much, tougher if she wins the nomination.

So far, Mr. Sanders has largely avoiding direct attacks on Ms. Clinton's integrity. He has dismissed the explosive issue of her using her husband's e-mail server in their Chappaqua basement to handle thousands of sensitive – and subsequently classified – communications when she was running the State Department.

Similarly, he has been gentle in noting that the biggest foreign-policy event on Ms. Clinton's watch was the U.S.-led air war that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi – a war championed by her, but one that has resulted in another violent, long-running civil war where Islamic State extremists have carved out another chunk of caliphate.

But if Ms. Clinton becomes the nominee, her Republican opponent, whoever it is, is unlikely to be so restrained. The e-mails, the infamous accusation that reports of her husband's sexual romps with a White House intern half his age were all part of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy," the dramatic (but untrue) tales of racing through sniper fire when she landed in Bosnia and even the circumstances of the land deals that made the Clintons wealthy way back in Arkansas will all be resurrected.

The attacks on the Clintons' sense of entitlement, the perception that they act as though the rules do not really apply to them, will be relentless.

So, too, will be questions about the couple's long-standing flirtation with big money. When Sam Walton, as far back as 1986, picked a young Arkansas lawyer to be the first woman on the board of Wal-Mart, already among the nation's largest low-wage employers, did he pick Ms. Clinton because she was the best available candidate or because she was the wife of the sitting governor in Little Rock?

Ms. Clinton, so far, has shown herself no better able to cope with the rough-and-tumble of campaigning than she was when facing Mr. Obama eight years ago. She hasn't experienced the kind of no-holds-barred attacks that the Republicans launched against John Kerry in 2004.

As for Ms. Clinton, she is positioning herself as the best available guardian of Mr. Obama's legacy, warning, for instance, that Mr. Sanders' pledge to push for universal health care threatens to unravel the progress made by Obamacare, which has cut the number of uninsured Americans to 19 million.

Ironies abound. It was Ms. Clinton who, appointed by her husband to lead a task force on health care, championed a universal health care system 20 years ago. It was too ambitious and failed to advance in Congress.

This time, Ms. Clinton says she will be a president that gets things done.

"Once I'm in the White House, we will have enough political capital to be able to do that," she said, referring, during the most recent Democratic debate, to her promise to raise taxes on the wealthy.

To which, Mr. Sanders pointedly reminded her: "Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet."

In fact, Ms. Clinton's concession speech eight years ago may turn out to be more prophetic than she intended.

After losing to Mr. Obama, she said: "From now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States."

Perhaps that's why Ms. Clinton's second attempt to return to the White House is so unremarkable so far.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More


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