How Hillary Clinton can correct the biggest mistake she made in 2008

Asked by Gallup what the best part of a Hillary Clinton presidency would be, one thing stood far above the rest: That she would be the first female president in U.S. history.


Hillary Clinton, Former US Secretary of State and US Senator attends the 'Equality for women is progress for all', on the occasion of the International Women's Day on 08 March, organized by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), at the United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 07 March 2014. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT

Roughly one in five respondents (18 percent) in the Gallup poll said Clinton's history-making status as the first woman to hold the country's top job is what appeals to them most about her, double the next most appealing trait ("experience/foreign policy experience). Writes Gallup's Frank Newport of the findings:

Clearly Clinton's "unique selling proposition" is that she would be the first woman president. Nearly one in five Americans mention this historic possibility as a positive, including 22% of women, 27% of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 30% of Democrats. A Gallup analysis of a similar question, asked of a representative Gallup Panel sample in 2007, also found that Americans were more likely to mention her being the first woman president than any other positive factor.

Newport's point is critical and gets to what we believe was the single biggest mistake that Clinton and her team made during the 2008 presidential bid.  Faced with the historic candidacy of then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton could have matched history for history. But, she didn't.  The reasons why not remain legion although it seems quite clear from the after-action analysis that the most influential voices in Clinton's political circle seemed to believe that putting her gender at the forefront of the campaign would have endangered the sort of "ready on day one" argument that she was making. (Why they would conclude that is entirely beyond us.)

It was a stunningly big and bad mistake. And, by the time Clinton brought in a new groups of top aides to re-direct her campaign, it was already too late. Obama was the "make history" candidate. Clinton was the "politics as usual" candidate. Her most obvious -- and effective -- bow to the historic nature of her campaign didn't come until, literally, its final moments.  In Clinton's concession speech, she delivered these now-famous lines (that became the title of Anne Kornblut's book):

As we gather here today in this historic, magnificent building, the 50th woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House.

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...

... and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.

Now, fast forward six years. And remember that perhaps Clinton's biggest challenge in the 2016 race -- assuming she runs -- is to present herself as a future-looking candidate rather than a remnant of politics past. Putting the historic nature of her candidacy at the forefront might well be Clinton's best pushback against the idea that she is part of an old style of politics.  She could well be the only candidate in the field whose election would amount to a never-before-seen moment.  Emphasizing that fact is very good politics for the former First Lady.

The question is whether Clinton has learned the lesson of that first, unsuccessful campaign.  Whether she -- and the team she has built/is building/will build -- understand that her gender, far from being a negative, is actually the strong argument in her favor in the eyes of voters. Embracing rather than running from or ignoring the history Clinton can make could well reverse her fortunes in 2016.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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