But there may be another strategic goal here. The repeated emphasis on the historical nature of her candidacy could also be intended as a shield against seemingly unrelated GOP attacks that could prove potent: Republican suggestions that her age, generation and status as wife of a former president render her a candidate of the past, in contrast to the younger GOP White House hopefuls.
Here’s Clinton, in an interview with the Des Moines Register:
Clinton said just the fact that she’s running “is also very historic.”“I expect to be judged on my merits,” she said, “and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account.”
In her speech on Saturday, Clinton stressed that her mother had been born before women had the right to vote, adding:
“I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well. And one additional advantage: You’re won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!”
I don’t have any inside confirmation of this. But it probably isn’t an accident that she noted that she’d be the first female president as a direct response to the fact that other candidates running for the White House are younger than she is.
That’s what the argument will be, either explicitly or not: Even if it’s true that Clinton comes from an older generation of politicians than some of her Republican and Democratic rivals, the election of a female president itself represents change.
Celinda Lake, a pollster who is widely respected among Democrats, tells me that focus groups she has conducted show this has the potential to be an effective rebuttal — particularly among the voter groups it appears intended for.
“The two cohorts who feel most strongly that it’s time for a woman president, and appreciate the historical nature of this, are baby boomer females and their millennial daughters,” says Lake, who has been doing research for the non-partisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation for years on how voters perceive female candidates for executive office.
“We’ve learned that the inherent idea that this would be the first woman president in and of itself communicates ‘change’ to people,” Lake says.
The question of which candidates — and which party — represent the future and which represent the past is already a major flashpoint in the race. In her speech, Clinton said even the younger GOP candidates were in thrall to a hidebound vision, arguing that “they’re all singing the same old song – a song called ‘Yesterday.'” Republicans have stressed that Clinton is a leader of the past who would represent a third term of Obama.
In response to Clinton’s speech, Marco Rubio released a video mocking Clinton’s reference to the Beatles song, arguing that America cannot author the next chapter in its history “by going back to the leaders and the ideas of the past.” Scott Walker has been sounding a similar generational note (one that also appears aimed at Jeb Bush). And in the Democratic Primary, Martin O’Malley has been suggesting he can speak to a younger generation of Democratic voters more effectively than Clinton can.
As Chris Cillizza notes, many of Clinton’s strengths as a candidate are rooted in the past. But this could be undercut as a negative if voters appreciate how much historic ground would be broken by electing her.
Or, to expand on that a bit, if electing a female president inherently breaks new ground, that itself might put a forward-looking gloss on her experience, turning her longevity on the political scene into an undiluted reason to vote for her, Lake suggests.
“The Republicans are trying to exploit age and health and a ‘third Obama term’ and a ‘third Clinton term’ to say, ‘more of the same,'” Lake says. “People think they voted for change in Obama, but he wasn’t able to deliver change. So you need more experience to deliver change. She represents change and the ability to deliver on it.”
Of course, this by itself is hardly enough, Lake adds: “It’s got to be followed up by a specific vision for the economy, one that includes women and men.” Which might explain why, in her speech, she repeatedly described economic proposals that might disproportionately benefit women — such as pay equity, a minimum wage hike, and universal pre-kindergarten — as “family” issues.
“‘Family first’ is the strongest economic theme out there right now,” Lake says. “She’s running as a champion of making the economy work for families. A woman can be a very credible voice of change on that message.”