For nearly a quarter-century, Hillary Rodham Clinton has played an outsized role in the nation’s consciousness as an advocate and a political survivor. Her presidential campaign’s favorite way to describe her is as “a fighter.”
But something surprising has emerged in public opinion about the former first lady, senator and secretary of state. Asked to name something tangible that Clinton has actually accomplished, many voters come up blank.
In polls and focus groups, Republicans are sensing a vulnerability in Clinton’s record that could compound the difficulties she is facing with the controversy over her decision as secretary of state to use a private e-mail account and server rather than a government one.
When Bloomberg News posed the question in May to a focus group of 10 Iowa Democrats, they praised Clinton for strength, experience and competence but could not recall a single thing she had done.
Some Democrats say that they have only a vague sense of Clinton’s actual accomplishments. Liberal activist Arnie Arnesen was the Democratic nominee for New Hampshire governor in 1992, and she often crossed paths with the Clintons as Bill Clinton made his first bid for the White House. But all these years later, Arnesen said: “I don’t really know Hillary. I know Hillary under Clinton. I know Hillary under Obama. And in the Senate she was a workhorse, not a show horse. What does that mean? It means she didn’t take a leadership role.”
Hillary Clinton’s team also recognizes that while her credentials are well known, her achievements are not. That was part of her message in a speech Wednesday supporting the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated by her successor, John Kerry. Clinton spotlighted her own role in bringing Tehran to the table.
The campaign denied that her résumé is a liability. “From the Senate to the State Department, Hillary Clinton has a record of results on behalf of children and families, and in her advocacy of America’s interests abroad,” said campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. “If Republicans want to try to argue otherwise, we will welcome them wasting their ad dollars. Voters don’t buy it.”
Clinton’s tenure as first lady is remembered most for her politically disastrous effort to transform the health-care system. In the Senate, she was a relatively junior member with few legislative victories that bear her name. And as secretary of state, she was carrying out President Obama’s agenda in an administration where diplomatic policymaking was tightly controlled by the White House.
When it came to stopping Iran from obtaining the ability to build a nuclear weapon, “I voted for sanctions again and again as a senator from New York. But they weren’t having much effect. Most of the world still did business with Iran. We needed to step up our game,” she said Wednesday in her speech at the Brookings Institution. “So President Obama and I pursued a two-prong strategy: pressure and engagement. We made it clear that the door to diplomacy was open if Iran answered the concerns of the international community in a serious and credible way,”
“I traveled the world,” she added, “capital by capital, leader by leader, twisting arms to help build the global coalition that produced some of the most effective sanctions in history.”
She’s in a race to define that legacy herself, before the Republicans do it for her.
“While her e-mail scandal has badly damaged Clinton’s public image and raised questions about her judgment, her failed leadership in public life may be what actually hurts Clinton the most among voters in the long run,” said Jeff Bechdel, communications director for America Rising, a super PAC dedicated to producing opposition research about Democrats.
Where Clinton boasts of having logged nearly 1 million miles during her years as the nation’s chief diplomat, GOP presidential contender Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, has said: “Like Mrs. Clinton, I too have traveled the globe. But unlike her I have actually accomplished something. Flying is not an accomplishment. It is an activity.”
A day after launching his campaign for president in June, former Florida governor Jeb Bush took a similarly dismissive tone in comparing his record and Clinton’s: “As a senator, I think she’s passed — she has her name on three laws in eight years. . . . I honestly don’t know what her successes are.”
Nor are Republicans the only ones making that argument.
Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a long-shot contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, claims a record of raising the minimum wage, devoting more money to infrastructure, improving education and lowering violent crime.
It is hard to mistake the contrast that he is trying to draw with Clinton when he says, “All of those things required executive discipline and the executive method of actually getting things done instead of just talking about getting things done.”
When Clinton ran for president the first time in 2008, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, called her “famous but really unknown.”
Her current campaign aides believe that is still the case, as evidenced by her first ads, which focused heavily on her biography.
Yet some of what she touts as accomplishments have been disputed. In a five-minute video released on the eve of her campaign’s formal launch in June, she suggested that she was the force behind the expansion of health coverage to children in the 1990s.
After her push for universal health care failed, she said in the video, “I was really disappointed. But you have to get up off the floor and you keep fighting. So I got to thinking, ‘Let’s see what we can do to help kids.’ ”
In fact, however, that legislation was created and driven by two senators, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). At one point, then-President Bill Clinton turned against it, fearing that it would destroy a balanced-budget deal, and Hillary Clinton defended her husband, saying, “He had to safeguard the budget proposal.”
But she did come to Kennedy’s assistance when the children’s health insurance measure was resurrected, lobbying privately within the White House for it. Kennedy, who had been furious at what he considered an initial betrayal by both Clintons, later said she was “of invaluable help.”
In part, her difficulty in defining her accomplishments comes from the fact that her role, by definition, was a supportive one in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. And her tenure in the Senate came at a time when the institution was largely known for partisan gridlock.
Her allies insist that her values come through in the fights she has chosen, even if they have not yielded the results she wanted.
“People are not looking for a punch list of things that somebody’s done,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is working for Priorities USA, the pro-Clinton super PAC. “They’re more concerned whether somebody’s got the strength and the toughness and the determination to get something done for the American people, and the people that I talk to see all of those things in Hillary Clinton.”