This is the paradox of Hillary Clinton: She has achieved something no one else in the history of American politics has even come close to doing, yet she is widely considered an inept, flawed candidate.
These two things are not unrelated.
Twice now we have thought that it should have been easy for Clinton to do what no one has ever done before. Twice now we have dismissed her as a weak candidate and a flawed leader for struggling to break a barrier that no one else has ever come near breaking.
America has hosted 56 presidential elections — 33 of them before women received the right to vote. Exactly zero of those elections featured a female nominee from one of the two major political parties.
Until Hillary Clinton.
There is something about Clinton that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement. Or perhaps there is something about us that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement.
Perhaps, in ways we still do not fully appreciate, the reason no one has ever broken the glass ceiling in American politics is because it's really fucking hard to break. Before Clinton, no one even came close.
Whether you like Clinton or hate her — and plenty of Americans hate her — it's time to admit that the reason Clinton was the one to break it is because Clinton is actually really good at politics.
She's just good at politics in a way we haven't learned to appreciate.
How presidential campaigns favor male traits
Hillary Clinton has her flaws, of course. The email server. The speeches to Goldman Sachs. And just look at her unfavorable numbers! But what really defines coverage of Clinton is confusion over how she's gotten so far without the animal charisma typical of politicians at her level.
There is something Rebecca Traister wrote in her terrific profile of Clinton that I have been thinking about for weeks. She began by admitting what everyone admits. Clinton is not a great campaigner. She does not give great speeches. She does not inspire. And she knows it. "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama," Clinton has said.
The "in case you haven't noticed" flashes through that sentence, a quick glimpse into the bitterness and hurt underlying Clinton's self-deprecating admission. But there was once an excuse, Traister writes. Obama is "a masterful orator. Bill Clinton, too. Even George W. Bush was charismatic in his way." Perhaps Clinton's charisma simply suffered in comparison.
But Donald Trump? Are we really going to say that Clinton lacks the likability, the decency, and the eloquence of Donald J. Trump? Traister continues:
If, as in this election, a man who spews hate and vulgarity, with no comprehension of how government works, can become presidentially plausible because he is magnetic while a capable, workaholic woman who knows policy inside and out struggles because she is not magnetic, perhaps we should reevaluate magnetism’s importance. It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it?
Though those on both the right and the left moan about "woman cards," it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be.
It is not that no women possess a public magnetism; Sarah Palin could rock a room, and Elizabeth Warren can work a crowd. But the quality we adore in presidential candidates — the ability to stand up and speak loudly, confidently, and fluently on topics you may know nothing about — is gendered.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both excellent yellers, and we love them for it. Nobody likes it when Hillary Clinton yells. As my colleague Emily Crockett has written, research shows people don't like it when women yell in general:
Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more. People get annoyed by verbal tics like "vocal fry" and "upspeak" when women use them, but often don't even notice it when men do. The same mental amplification process makes people see an assertive woman as "aggressive," which gets in the way of women's personal and professional advancement. Women are much more likely to be perceived as "abrasive" and get negative performance reviews as a result — which puts them in a double bind when they try to "lean in" and assertively negotiate salaries.
It may not be impossible for a woman to win the presidency the way we are used to men doing it, but it is unlikely. The way a woman is likeliest to win will defy our expectations.
Perhaps that's why we don't appreciate Clinton's strengths as a candidate. She's winning a process that evolved to showcase stereotypically male traits using a stereotypically female strategy.
And it's working.
A campaign of relationships, not speeches
There is a narrative that has emerged in the Democratic primary, and it goes something like this: Hillary Clinton locked up the Democratic establishment long before the primary began in earnest. She's the wife of an ex-president. She was endorsed by virtually every elected official in the party and pretty much every major interest group. Her dominance of the inside game was unprecedented for a non-incumbent candidate. And she used this elite firewall to choke off Sanders's revolution.
When Sanders's supporters argue that the election was rigged against their candidate, this is what they are talking about. Sanders, they feel, did what you normally have to do to win an election: He generated more enthusiasm, brought in more voters, raised more money, gave better speeches, and polled higher in head-to-head matchups against the Republican candidate. It was only Clinton's pact with the Democratic establishment that stopped his rise.
In this telling, the way Clinton won the primary is the reason her victory feels hollow: It was nearly preordained, and the seriousness of the challenge Sanders posed just shows what a flawed candidate she really is.
But another way to look at the primary is that Clinton employed a less masculine strategy to win. She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies. Today, 208 members of Congress have endorsed Clinton; only eight have endorsed Sanders.
This work is a grind — it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon.
But Clinton is arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over.
"We have become, actually, good friends," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who served as one of the Republican prosecutors during impeachment. "And that was a surprise to both of us." (It is perhaps not coincidental that Graham is one of the few elected Republicans now calling on his fellow Republicans to retract their endorsements of Donald Trump.)
And Clinton isn't just better — she's relentless. After losing to Barack Obama, she rebuilt those relationships, campaigning hard for him in the general, serving as his secretary of state, reaching out to longtime allies who had crushed her campaign by endorsing him over her. (This, by the way, is why I don't think you can dismiss Clinton's victory as reflections of her husband's success: She's won her own elections and secured a major appointment in a subsequent administration.)
Now Obama says that Clinton "had a tougher job throughout that primary than I did. She had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels." It's been clear since early in the primary that he is firmly in her corner, and his endorsement is believed to be imminent.
In this telling, in order to do something as hard as becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, she had to do something extraordinarily difficult: She had to build a coalition, supported by a web of relationships, that dwarfed in both breadth and depth anything a non-incumbent had created before. It was a plan that played to her strengths, as opposed to her (entirely male) challengers' strengths. And she did it.
Hillary Clinton is a generationally talented politician — albeit across a different set of dimensions than men tend to be talented politicians.
When she lost in 2008, Clinton said that after her campaign, it would no longer be remarkable to see women win presidential primaries and nearly win their party's nomination. But no women did it in 2012, and she was the only woman to do it in 2016. It is still not easy, and it is still not unremarkable, for a woman to succeed in presidential politics. Clinton's victory is a remarkable achievement, and it shouldn't be dismissed.