What a difference four years makes: When she was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton was parodied as drab and calculated, especially compared with young and vigorous Barack Obama and winking and fresh-faced Sarah Palin. Now, she’s fueling Internet jokes based on her own brand of badass cool.
More than just an image rebound, Clinton is enjoying a genuine resurgence.
Her 2008 campaign, which once seemed a cautionary tale about hubris, looks at least somewhat better with age. Obama touted a unifying national message in his run against Clinton, suggesting that Clinton’s scars from decades of battling Republicans would make it difficult to ever be effective in the White House.
Now Obama’s post-partisan vision has given way to a tough dogfight of a general election in which he’s running against the intransigent Republican party’s “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” And Clinton’s popularity — including with Republicans — has never been higher, prompting yet another boomlet of interest in a 2016 presidential run.
Part of this is the nature of her position. The secretary of State has traditionally been an apolitical figure and, consequently, those who have held the position have often enjoyed higher approval ratings than their boss. Clinton has held fast to this tradition and avoided injecting herself into the day’s hot-button issues. There are some occasional exceptions — last month she told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that she was glad to see Rush Limbaugh’s screed against law student Sandra Fluke draw widespread condemnation.
Still, given how well established — and polarizing — a political figure Clinton was considered prior to her appointment compared to many of her predecessors, the scale of her popularity is impressive. A recent Gallup poll showed her favorability rating reach new heights at 66 percent, including 40 percent of Republicans who view her positively, an astronomical figure for a prominent Democrat these days. From the public’s perspective, it’s clear that she’s settled easily into a behind-the-scenes role as a loyal and competent secretary of State.
Her lower visibility seems to have created some pent-up demand from her fans, though. This week a website “Texts From Hillary” created by two supporters, Stacy Lambe and Adam Smith, exploded on the Internet, generating tens of thousands of links on Facebook and Tumblr in its first 24 hours. The site features several two-panel gags that show Clinton on her Blackberry, clad in shades on a military jet, purportedly texting with various political and pop culture figures, from Condoleezza Rice to Ryan Gosling.
Clinton’s cold, relentless style was considered one of her biggest vulnerabilities, forming the basis for parodies of her on “Saturday Night Live” and attracting a number of sexist jabs from pundits. By the end of her campaign, however, she had drawn considerable respect even from many critics for her toughness and resolve during a long and difficult primary. Lambe told TPM he was hoping to capture this trait in his site.
“That photo just captures how people tried to make her out to be a bitch when she’s actually the head bitch in charge,” Lambe said. “Ever since she was appointed secretary of State there’s been a renewed appreciation for Hillary.”
As for the idea for the initial two-panel gag, “the alcohol helped,” said Smith.
It’s no accident that the notion of Clinton as the peak of steady competence has proven so resonant. Phil Singer, a spokesman for her 2008 presidential campaign, told TPM Clinton’s recent success follows a consistent trend in which she is best regarded when working on policy instead of politics. Before her 2008 run, for example, Clinton was an extremely popular senator both in New York and among her colleagues.
“When people see her doing her job and not getting involved with the back-and-forth, they’re happy,” Singer said, acknowledging that it was “ironic” given her highly political roles as First Lady, a tough Senate candidate in 2000 and an even tougher presidential candidate in 2008.
The fact that she’s kept her hands clean during an incredibly tense three-year standoff between the White House and national Republicans may also artificially boost her standing as voters imagine what could have been if she had won the nomination.
“Some people’s views on her may be reflective of the fact people had higher hopes for Obama,” Republican strategist Liz Mair said, “and its sort of evened out so she looks better by comparison.”
Not surprisingly, the 2016 speculation that began even before the 2008 election ended is worming its way back into the press in a major way. Plenty of Democrats are hoping she’ll run again, with Nancy Pelosi declaring just last week that she should consider waging another bid.
Clinton has mostly avoided the topic, though she’s hinted that her political days may be behind her at this point. She would be 69 on inauguration day, 2017.
“I believe that she’s being absolutely honest with you when she says she doesn’t think she’ll go back into politics,” Bill Clinton told ABC News recently. “But if she comes home and we do this foundation stuff for the rest of our lives, I’ll be happy; if she changes her mind and decides to run, I’ll be happy.”
Were Clinton to run she would almost certainly shed a significant amount of her current popularity with the right as soon as she seized a partisan mantle again. But her impressive tenure as secretary of State in a difficult transition period from the tumultuous Bush era would only boost her core appeal as the party’s most battle-tested heavyweight. One need only look to the equivalent time period in the 2004 presidential cycle to underscore how unpredictable things are in politics — Barack Obama was a virtually unknown state senator then, and George Allen was widely considered the man to beat on the Republican side.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.