When Margaret Thatcher died recently, it was shocking to realize that she became Great Britain’s first female prime minister almost 34 years ago. Today, 17 nations, from Brazil and Bangladesh to Liberia and Lithuania, are led by women. South Korea swore in its first female president, Park Geun-hye, in February.
But in the United States, we’re still waiting.
That’s why Hillary Clinton’s possible bid for the White House in 2016 is already stirring so much speculation. When she ran against Barack Obama in 2008, they were both aiming to become the first non-white male to run the country. But only one could succeed.
Now it’s time for the other barrier to fall. Now it’s time for a woman president, and not just on TV (Geena Davis played President Mackenzie Allen in the short-lived series “Commander in Chief” several years ago). Many of Clinton’s close friends think she shares that sense of history and will try again.
“I think she wants very much to see a woman president in her lifetime,” one of her chief advisers, Harold Ickes, told the New York Times. “If you look at the landscape right now, there’s only one person who has a real shot at that.”
While we strongly endorse the idea of a woman in the Oval Office, it doesn’t have to be Hillary. She’d be 69 when she moved in, and since we’re both about that age right now, we’re painfully aware of the flaws and frailties that come with longevity. More seriously, she’s lived a public life for many years, she’s served her country well, and she has a right to say no. But don’t bet on it.
For one thing, Ickes is correct. No other woman seems ready to make a serious run. Among the Democrats, younger senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (52) and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (46) have bright futures but low national profiles. The only Democratic woman holding a governor’s chair, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan, took office in January.
Republicans have more female bench strength, starting with Governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. But the GOP is still suffering from Sarah Syndrome, a political malady caused when a youthful woman governor is pushed ahead before she’s ready.
Clinton would make a much better candidate the second time around. In 2008, she was still defined as Bill Clinton’s wife. After four years as secretary of state, she has largely shed that baggage and emerged as a strong, independent figure in her own right. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, her favorability rating was 69 percent. Obama adviser David Plouffe, who helped engineer her defeat five years ago, recently called her “by far the most interesting candidate and probably the strongest candidate” in the field.
In 2008, Clinton ran a top-down campaign while Obama ran one from the bottom up. Plouffe & Co. understood the primary system far better than Team Hillary and encouraged volunteers to organize themselves in every state. One example of the result: Obama clobbered Clinton in Idaho, winning 15 delegates to her 3. Hillary won Ohio by 9 points, but her marginal advantage in delegates was less than Obama’s in Idaho, 74 to 67.
The Clintonistas won’t make that same mistake again. A political action committee called Ready for Hillary is already organizing on the Obama model: raising money, creating social networks and gathering email addresses and phone numbers of potential supporters. The group’s communications director, Seth Bringman, boasted earlier this month that it “has been expanding its social media base at the rate of one new person every 14 seconds.” ABC says Hillary’s Facebook fan club exceeds 100,000 and 55,000 follow her on Twitter. A Quinnipiac poll has her leading New Jersey Governor Chris Christie by 7 points and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida by twice that amount.
So is she a lock? Of course not. Clinton remains a highly polarizing figure who can organize opponents as well as supporters. After all, she did lose in 2008 and still has to prove she can connect on a personal level with the suburban swing voters who decide national elections.
But Maggie Thatcher was actually a latecomer. Sirimavo Bandaranaike first led Sri Lanka in 1960; Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966; Golda Meir took power in Israel three years later. Barack Obama’s daughters are growing up with a president who shares their color but not their gender. It’s time to make history. Again.
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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org