Hillary Rodham Clinton took to a Toronto stage in June before about 5,000 supporters, many of them women and many looking for a hint that she might run for president in 2016 — and she gave them one.
“Hypothetically speaking, I really do hope that we have a woman president in my lifetime,” Clinton said coyly, making an implicit nod to the history she might make herself. “Our country,” she added, “has to take that leap of faith.”
Unlike during her 2008 presidential campaign, when she waited until her concession speech to fully embrace the historic nature of her candidacy, Clinton these days talks freely about women breaking barriers. She has woven a theme of women’s empowerment throughout almost all of her public remarks in the seven months since she stepped down as secretary of state.
Clinton’s advisers said that there is no political agenda behind her recent remarks and that she has made no decision to launch a campaign. They said the comments are simply a natural continuation of her lifelong focus on advocating for women.
“If you look at her career from her early days in law school through today, there’s one thing that’s clear, which is this is an incredibly important issue to her and has been over time,” said Jennifer Klein, a longtime Clinton aide.
In her political campaigns, Clinton has always tried to assert her toughness, to prove her mettle — first as the president’s wife seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate and then as a would-be commander in chief in a time of war. In her 2008 campaign, she shunned the “woman” label. Over and over, she said she was running because she thought she was the most qualified candidate and would make the best president.
Now, coming off her four-year tour as the nation’s top diplomat and free as a private citizen to pursue her own agenda, she is championing women — making speeches about the unfinished business of the women’s movement and starting an international project focused on women and girls through the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
“It’s not at all surprising that, as she thinks about what she wants to do next, she’s thinking about this issue,” said Klein, who is helping her set up the project.
Politically, said Nicolle Wallace, a former GOP strategist who has written two novels about a female Republican president, Clinton’s embrace of women as trailblazers “has the potential to be powerful and successful if it’s authentic — and it has the power to backfire if it seems purely political.”
“I have never done a book signing or a book event where women have not come up to me and said something about still being upset about what happened to Hillary — that sense that there was this unsettled experience,” Wallace said.
In the 2008 campaign, whether Clinton should make the historic aspect of her candidacy a part of her pitch to voters was a subject of considerable debate among her strategists. Their calculus was complicated by the fact that rival Barack Obama had embraced his role as an African American trailblazer.
Ultimately, the advisers decided that doing so might alienate male voters, and they assumed that women would vote for her regardless. But that proved to be a miscalculation. When Clinton finished third in the Iowa caucuses, she lost among women by five percentage points to Obama.
“I think that was a big mistake on our part — not wholeheartedly embracing the idea of electing the first woman president of the United States,” said one top Clinton adviser who spoke candidly about the 2008 strategy on the condition of anonymity.
Clinton did not talk directly about her historic run until it was over.
“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,” she said in her concession speech.
As Clinton ponders a second run for president, white women — who made up 38 percent of the 2012 electorate — are one demographic group where she could improve upon Obama’s finish.
In every presidential election since the advent of national exit polling in 1972, no Democrat has won a majority of white women. Obama fared particularly poorly last year, losing white women to Republican Mitt Romney by 56 percent to 42 percent.
The 2016 Democratic primary campaign probably won’t get underway for at least another year, but the epochal nature of Clinton’s potential candidacy is fueling buzz around her.
“I think the country is ready for Hillary,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told NBC News last month.
Emily’s List, a group that works to elect more women, is barely disguising its support for Clinton. It is staging town hall gatherings in early-voting states — the first was Friday in Iowa, with additional events planned for New Hampshire and Nevada — as part of its “Madam President” campaign.
“We hope she runs, and we’re looking forward to standing with her if she decides to do that, but we still live in a country that has never elected a woman to the White House,” Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock said. “This is not an insignificant moment.”
On Monday in San Francisco, the American Bar Association will honor Clinton with the prestigious ABA Medal for her career as a pioneering woman. In 1987, Clinton, then the first lady of Arkansas and the first female partner at the venerable Rose Law Firm, chaired a new ABA commission on women in the legal profession. Aides said she plans to talk about that experience in her acceptance speech.
“Go back to a time when women were not a recognized face of the legal profession, and around that time came Hillary Clinton,” ABA President Laurel G. Bellows said. “She is an advocate of the highest order.”
In 1995, Clinton made a global splash when, as first lady of the United States, she declared in Beijing, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” As secretary of state, she made women’s empowerment a core focus. She gave major speeches about the power that women can have in improving government, expanding an economy and securing peace.
Clinton devoted her first public remarks after leaving the State Department, an address at the Vital Voices Global Partnership gala, to a discussion of the “untapped potential” of women. And she continued that theme at the Women in the World conference in April. Women, she said, “are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace — all we need is a fighting chance.”
A couple of months later, at a Clinton Global Initiative event in Chicago, she said, “When women participate in politics, the effects ripple out across society.” Conference attendees responded with knowing applause.
“She talks about it very passionately now,” said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman with Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “I think she’s aware of that unique role she can play in driving that message and is going to continue to do it.”
For the first time in Clinton’s life under the public spotlight, she is unencumbered by other people’s agendas, noted former congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, a Clinton friend and State Department adviser.
“In all of those roles, Hillary Clinton supplicated her own personal passions and concerns, the things that she was troubled about — she put them all aside to do things for the people that she was representing,” Tauscher said. “Now this is the first time she actually gets to speak for herself.”
In June, Clinton spoke at Bryn Mawr, a historic women’s college in Pennsylvania. She talked about her desire to see more female heads of state.
“Bryn Mawr is Welsh for ‘big hill,’ ” Clinton said. “We still have a long way to go and a big hill to climb. If this was easy, it would have already been done. Let’s keep our eye on the goal.”
Capital Insight polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.