BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — She has been America’s most admired woman for a decade. World leaders all but bow before her and seas part at a flick of her hand. Late-night pundits — well, comedian Jon Stewart, anyway — have already called the 2016 election in her favor.
Hillary Clinton announced when she was nominated for secretary of state that she would serve only one term. The ugly and divisive battle over her replacement has kept analysts busy for weeks.
Now that issue, at least, has been settled. On Friday President Barack Obama nominated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for the top job at Foggy Bottom, a post he reportedly has long coveted.
Clinton’s exit from the State Department is likely to be marred by the long shadow of Benghazi. The attack on the US Consulate this past Sept. 11, in which four Americans died, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a major bone of contention in the presidential elections.
Now an independent inquiry has laid the blame on “systemic failures” and “leadership and management deficiencies” in two bureaus of the State Department, and the buck will inevitably stop with the woman at the top.
This week, the State Department disciplined four of its officials, one of whom resigned.
Clinton herself is missing from the public eye, restricted to her home by a concussion she sustained as a result of a fall last week. This has set tongues wagging. Conservatives are hinting that Clinton is faking illness to escape a grilling by Congress, and are already floating the term “Concussiongate.”
But even this is unlikely to cause significant damage to the formidable Clinton legacy. As The Wall Street Journal points out in an editorial Tuesday, “Mrs. Clinton will soon leave the Obama cabinet with sky-high approval ratings and an eye on the 2016 presidential nomination.”
This is a remarkable position for a woman whose previous tenure in the White House was controversial in the extreme; a 2008 book about her was called “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.”
By most accounts, Clinton has been an exemplary secretary of state, being described as “indefatigable,” and “innovative,” racking up close to a million miles and traveling to more than 110 countries.
Clinton was the first top US diplomat to visit Myanmar since 1955, and is widely credited with being the driving force behind the Libya intervention. She has also been at the forefront of efforts to form a coalition to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program.
There are critics, of course. In July, The Wall Street Journal ran a scathing piece called “The Hillary Myth,” in which columnist Bret Stephens challenges the conventional wisdom on Clinton’s stellar performance.
“What would make Mrs. Clinton a great secretary of state is if she had engineered a major diplomatic breakthrough, as Henry Kissinger did. But she hasn't. Or if she dominated the administration's foreign policy, the way Jim Baker did. But she doesn't. Or if she had marshaled a great alliance (Acheson), or authored a great doctrine (Adams) or a great plan (Marshall), or paved the way to a great victory (Shultz). But she falls palpably short on all those counts, too,” writes Stephens.
It would be tempting to dismiss this as just caviling by disgruntled conservatives, but, as New York Times columnist Nate Silver points out in a recent article, this is the kind of harsh examination Clinton will face if she does take a shot at the top job in 2016.
According to Silver, one reason for Clinton’s astronomical favorability ratings, which hover above 65 percent, is that she is not running for anything. Once she gets back into the rough-and-tumble of a political campaign, her image will most likely take a beating.
“If Mrs. Clinton runs for president in 2016, one thing is almost certain: she won’t be as popular as she is right now,” writes Silver. “As secretary of state, she has remained largely above the partisan fray that characterizes elections and fights over domestic policy.”
Over her long and varied career, Silver continues, the public’s views of Clinton have shifted with her role. The bare-knuckled fight over her health care bill raised hackles in Washington and elsewhere; the Whitewater scandal raised doubts, since laid to rest, about her financial probity. And of course the shameful uproar over her husband’s affair with a White House intern had many feminists wondering why she didn’t just leave him.
The Benghazi attack, and the resulting report, could also play a role in 2016. As CBS’ John Dickerson points out, "What Republicans say about this report and her culpability for the failures will be played again and again if she is the nominee or runs in 2016."
The potential candidate herself has said repeatedly that she has no intentions of running “at this time,” but almost no one believes her.
As Stephens somewhat caustically writes in his Wall Street Journal piece, “Mrs. Clinton is back, resisting appeals for her to run in 2016 the way Caesar rejects the thrice-offered crown.”
The hype may very well be overblown, says Karen Beckwith, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It is much too early to be having this conversation,” she said. “I think that people are talking so much about it because we in the United States need a horse race. There is only so much you can say about the fiscal cliff, after all.”
Clinton has largely stuck to safe positions during her tenure at Foggy Bottom, Beckwith explains. It will be quite different if she is running against an opponent whose job is to find and exploit her weaknesses.
“She has been a strong advocate for women, for education and health,” said Beckwith, who specializes in gender and politics. “These are things that are hard to argue against. No one wants to say that people should be sicker, or stupider, or that women should be relegated to a subordinate position.”
Clinton will take some time off to rest, and then a host of options are open to her. She could team up with husband Bill in his foundation, devoted to global initiatives in health, climate, and other areas of development. She could be nominated to the Supreme Court, should a position become available, or even be in the running for secretary general of the United Nations. She will almost certainly write a book.
But there are signs to watch out for as a harbinger of a presidential bid.
“Look at what she does two years from now,” said Beckwith. “The hidden primary starts then. If Clinton is out raising boatloads of cash, then we’ll know.”
Whatever Clinton decides, she has already left quite a legacy for women, according to Jeanne Lorentzen, professor of gender and power relations at the University of Northern Michigan.
“Hillary is a woman of intelligence, drive, ambition and power,” said Lorentzen. “She has been the front woman for so many of us, accomplishing so much, so many firsts. I am not sure the pundits fully understand what she represents.”
Clinton may not have made up her mind yet, but Lorentzen, for one, would like to see her run for president, although she is not sanguine about the outcome.
”There is no real rationality to voting,” she said. “And women do not represent one voting bloc; they are very different. Clinton will not ride to the presidency on a sea of women’s votes.”
“I do not think we will have a woman as president in my lifetime,” she said. “Clinton would, obviously, be a very powerful candidate, but there is little evidence to suggest that women are more likely to vote for a woman.”
No discussion of Hillary Clinton would be complete without a mention of her hair. Whole panels, it seems, have been devoted to the secretary’s coiffure — the long and the short of it, power cut versus ponytail.
Barbara Walters, in a recent interview with Clinton, whom Walters picked as one of “the 10 most fascinating people of 2012,” chose to end a six-minute conversation, not with probing questions about Benghazi or the secretary’s relationship to the president, but about her hairstyle.
“Everyone said to me, ‘if you are interviewing the secretary of state, ask her about her hair,’” said Walters.
Clinton laughed uproariously.
“Yes, it is one of the great fascinations of our time,” she said.
“Nobody asks the men that,” replied Walters.