When Hillary Clinton first ran for president in 2008, some thought she was teetering on the “glass cliff.”
That term refers to the well-studied phenomenon in which women—and perhaps minorities—tend to disproportionately be considered for leadership opportunities at moments of great risk, when the chances of failure are higher. The New York Times, for instance, wrote that year: “Perhaps it was only during extremely hard times that America would finally consider a woman and a black man for the highest office.”
But we may need a different metaphor to describe the situation Clinton faces now.
Until recently, at least, Clinton seemed set up for a successful 2016 presidential bid. Despite the Benghazi scandal, she ended her run as secretary of state with sky-high favorability numbers, reaching 67 percent around the time she left the role. She also commands a big enough lead over any other potential Democratic rival that she is widely seen as a shoe-in for the party’s nomination.
Meanwhile, her opposing party is fractured. And while her predecessor may be polarizing, the economy is in a strikingly better place than it was in the last two elections.
Yet despite that apparently attractive playing field, Clinton now finds herself (even before officially announcing her candidacy) dealing with a big unforced error. The current furor over her use of a private email account while she was secretary of state has raised questions about her transparency and her judgment. These are two traits, of course, that you don't want to doubt in a potential candidate for president of the United States.
It’s too early to know whether the email controversy will have much impact on Clinton’s almost certain campaign. Some are reporting that it has Democrats nervous, even alarmed, and looking around for alternatives. Others are saying that voters probably won’t care much about it by autumn of 2016. Either way, Republicans are likely to make sure it remains a campaign flashpoint, even after she finally answers questions about it.
There may be nothing gender-specific about the predicament Clinton finds herself in now. But one interesting question the email controversy raises is whether it’s better for leaders to be in a position where the odds of success are long or where success is expected.
In the latter case, every slip-up is that much more magnified, which is what we're witnessing right now: Without a crowded primary field, all eyes are on Clinton. And since there's currently the impression that she has every advantage, this controversy—especially given that it's of her own doing—is bound to get that much more glare.