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HomeNewsHolly's Letter from America: Memo to Hillary. Merit trumps gender

Holly’s Letter from America: Memo to Hillary. Merit trumps gender


Hillary Clinton has stated that she has not decided whether she is running for the US presidency. Yet, with the publication this week of her book, Hard Choices, Hillary has started her ‘soft bid’ for the 2016 election through her book tour.

Since 2008, the hard-nosed and ambitious Clinton hasn’t had a particularly successful time. There were serious mistakes in her campaign for the Democratic nomination. More significantly, she delivered what even her supporters fear was a lacklustre performance as Secretary of State from 2008-2012.

Recently, former President Jimmy Carter criticized both President Obama and Clinton for their policy on the Middle East during Obama’s first term. Clinton, he said, ‘took very little action to bring about peace’ when she was Secretary. ‘It was only John Kerry’s coming into office that reinitiated all these very important and crucial issues.’

In Hard Choices, Clinton tries to distance herself somewhat from Obama, claiming that at times they had differences of opinion on what America’s foreign policy should be. We will never know what role she would have carved out for herself had she been given free reign, but what we do know is that, as things happened, Clinton’s time as Secretary of State looks rather inconsequential – and when we consider Benghazi – even inept at times.

That she was ‘inconsequential’ was perhaps unwittingly underscored by the American media this week. Rightly, most interviewers and commentators underscored Clinton’s failure in Benghazi. Beyond Benghazi, however, the media managed to focus Clinton’s book tour almost entirely on the few elements of her book that really had nothing to do with her time as Secretary of State.

They highlighted her claim that she and Bill were ‘broke’ when they left the White House, and especially her belated apology over voting for the Iraq war as a senator in 2003 (a position which she defended tirelessly in her 2008 campaign). They discussed the fact that Clinton has trouble connecting with ordinary Americans. The issue of Monica Lewinsky came up. These are all election topics.

Never mind about the mediocre performance as Secretary of State, then. Hillary is just Hillary – slated to be the first woman president, no matter what happens between 2008 and 2016.

So, of course, the issue of gender was addressed by the media this week. But that’s partly because Clinton herself makes it an issue. Clinton’s book begins with the disappointment of losing the nomination to Obama in 2008. She makes it very clear that she saw her bid for the presidency as significant precisely because she was a woman. Thus, when she lost, she says ‘I felt I had let down so many millions of people, especially the woman and girls who had invested their dreams in me. ‘

She even portrays her defeat as a triumph of sexism, saying in her concession speech to the 18 million people who voted for her: ‘Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.’ Indeed, when she met with Obama himself after her defeat, apparently he had to assure her that he wasn’t sexist: ‘[In that meeting] Barak spoke movingly about … his great pride in Michelle, Malia and Sasha and how strongly he felt they deserved full and equal rights in our society.’

It seems very likely to me that Clinton will run again in 2016, but perhaps it would help if someone could tell her that she did not lose in 2008 because of sexism. She lost because Obama was a better politician. Democrats thought he was more inspiring, and less strident, than she was.

It would help, too, if she saw her campaign as more than an historical, symbolic struggle to break the ‘highest glass ceiling’. People will vote for her, or against her, based on her perceived competency, where she stands on policy and how effectively they think she can implement those policies. We Americans have nothing against women shattering the glass ceiling, but first and foremost, we’re a meritocracy. We want to make sure we get the best person for the job.

Perhaps Clinton could learn a lesson by looking across the pond. Margaret Thatcher didn’t win three general elections because she was a woman. She won them because she was an exceptional politician. With a less-than-exceptional run as Secretary of State, Clinton has put a barrier between her and the ‘ultimate glass ceiling’.

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Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly Hamilton-Bleakley
Holly is a mother of six, now living in the United States. She holds an MPhil and PhD in Intellectual History & Political Thought from Newnham College, Cambridge. She blogs at Philosophy for Parents. Tim is her husband and a former RAF officer.

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