The Hillary Clinton Factor

Basil Wilson's picture

For most of American history, the President of the United States was invariably a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  With the election of John Kennedy to the Presidency in 1960, it marked the first time that a Catholic had been elected to the Presidency.

That exclusive club of male WASPs was made less exclusive with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  The election of Barack Obama is not happenstance but it reflects the rapidly changing racial and ethnic demographics of the American population.  Whites are still a majority but by 2050, if not before, no one race or ethnic group will constitute a majority.

The United States is also running behind other countries that have been in the vanguard of electing females as Presidents or as Prime Ministers.  Britain elected Margaret Thatcher during the age of Reagan. The Caribbean elected Eugenia Charles of Dominica in the 1980s and in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, Portia Simpson Miller and Kamla Persad-Bissessar are head of their respective governments.

Hillary Clinton is poised to make history as the first woman to be elected President of the United States.  The election is still a long way off and although she is expected to win the Democratic Party nomination, who will be her Republican opponent is still at this juncture a tossup.  The country has grown accustom to seeing women as Governors, Senators and Secretaries of State.  Neither Condoleezza Rice nor Madeline Albright who served as Secretaries of State, were seen as possible Presidential candidates.

Hillary Clinton’s political pathway to elected politics has been an interesting journey.  She took a back seat to her husband, Bill Clinton, as he pursued his elected fortunes as Governor of Arkansas and subsequently as President of the United States.  Bill Clinton was unquestionably the dominant political figure of the 1990s.

Although her principal role was presumably to be a First Lady, Hillary, the modern professional woman, became involved in writing a new healthcare policy, put together in the backroom of the White House.  There was great uproar against the President’s wife involving herself in healthcare.  The tradition of the First Lady was to immerse oneself in ceremonial occasions, not the prickly business of politics.

Throughout the two terms of the Clinton administration, not just Bill but Hillary was caught up in the post-Whitewater media frenzy.  Essentially, politics in Washington had become a zero sum game, far more ideologically ferocious than heretofore.

Witch-hunting that was denounced during the age of McCarthy in the 1950s became acceptable practice in the 1990s.  Kenneth Starr, the Special Prosecutor appointed by the Gingrich Republicans who had controlled the House of Representatives became the embodiment of that new kind of scorch earth politics which is unfortunately still in vogue today.

Starr’s witch-hunting was unending and led to investigations of the Whitewater Development Corporation, the Rose Hall law firm where Hillary Clinton practiced her legal craft, to her investment in cattle futures.  Vince Foster, a country lawyer in Arkansas who followed the Clintons to the White House was so shaken by this cut-throat politics that he took his own life. Starr eventually indicted Bill Clinton for lying to a Grand Jury and he was tried in the House but there were insufficient votes to impeach him.

The Clinton Presidency is remembered by most Americans as the longest peace time economic expansion in the history of the country.  Despite the impeachment shenanigans, Bill Clinton was elected for two terms.

Once Bill Clinton alighted from the White House, Hillary decided it was time to pursue her political career not in the back roads of Arkansas but in the global village of New York.  Although not a native of New York, she ran for the Senate and emerged triumphant and immediately was perceived as a possible future presidential candidate.

As a Senator, Hillary Clinton won the respect of her colleagues by her work ethic and her propensity for being a policy wonk.  It is that reputation that propelled her to being the frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008.  That run was derailed by the Obama candidacy.  Nonetheless, she resurfaced as Obama’s Secretary of State. Since the 1990s, the country has become more polarized with the Tea Party taking over the Republican Party and the Democratic Party moving towards a far more populist posture.

At her coming out party for the Democratic Party nomination on June 13, 2015, Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced the mantle of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She embraced the progressive agenda vehemently opposed to gross income inequality.  Other themes of the progressive agenda entail a commitment to a living wage, mandatory sick leave, aggressive assault on climate change and alleviating student indebtedness.

Hillary Clinton has promised to develop White Papers on these critical issues.  One issue that she needs to articulate is the revitalization of urban centers like Baltimore where dilapidated housing, high unemployment and rampant drug trafficking are sapping community vitality.  For communities in the surplus labor predicament, there has to be a job program.

It is of some historical interest that the de-industrialization that began in the 1970s exacerbated the precarious living conditions of the black urban communities.  As the Congress and the President struggle over the impact of trade bills and the impact on American workers, the devastation that was precipitated by early outsourcing in the black communities was understood by scholars like William Julius Wilson but not grasped by the larger society.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy cannot only be historic from the standpoint of gender, but her campaign can capture the imagination of a traditionally backward white working class that could lead to a transformative kind of politics, especially if she can concomitantly keep together what has become known as the Obama coalition.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: