The mystery of Americans’ distaste for Hillary Clinton

by Thomas Walkom

Republicans loathe her. Democrats suspect her. Polls show her to be one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern American history.

What is it about Hillary Clinton?

In theory, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the U.S. presidency should be golden. She is experienced. She is moderate.

A centre-right Democrat, she straddles the class divide – with support from organized labour as well as Wall Street.

On foreign affairs she is a liberal hawk in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy.

When Barack Obama praised her as the most qualified presidential nominee ever, he wasn’t far off.

Still, she is struggling.

During the primaries, she had a hard time shaking off a challenge from Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist who had only recently joined the Democratic Party.

On the eve of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia that will formally name her the party’s presidential nominee, polls have her neck and neck with the even more unpopular Donald Trump, her Republican rival.

Clinton has long been controversial. As first lady to former president Bill Clinton, she played an unusually visible role in government – in particular masterminding a health-care reform package that ultimately failed.

The Clintons’ time in the White House was marked by a series of so-called scandals with names like Whitewater and Travelgate that, for most people, have long vanished into the mists of time.

An independent prosecutor later concluded that Hillary Clinton had done nothing wrong in any of these.

Nonetheless, they damaged her. Critics were unable to pierce Bill Clinton’s glad-handing popularity. But Hillary was easier prey. By the time the Clintons left the White House, a notion – not entirely without merit – had taken root in the public mind that she sometimes skirted the truth.

Today, the Republicans blame Hillary Clinton for every foreign policy mistake of the Obama administration. And it is true that Clinton, as Obama’s secretary of state, bears some responsibility for the 2011 war against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi that left that country in chaos.

But it’s also true that those years from 2009 to 2013 marked a high point for Clinton’s popularity. Indeed, it was only after the latest scandal – her use of a private server to host government emails – broke in 2015 that Clinton’s poll numbers began to collapse again.

On the face of it, the email scandal should have appealed only to IT aficionados. Her stated and very plausible motive for using a private cellphone on government business was that she didn’t want to carry two mobile devices.

However, this was Hillary Clinton. Once again, an investigation was launched. Once again, she was cleared of criminal wrongdoing (although not of bad judgment) – this time by the FBI.

A House investigation into another soi-disant Clinton scandal – her role in the 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that killed four Americans – found no evidence of negligence on her part.

But both contretemps served to reawaken the old doubts. In May, one pollster interviewed Americans with a negative view of Clinton.

It found, to no one’s surprise, that 50 per cent of Republicans polled found her untrustworthy.

More alarmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, it found that 39 per cent of Democrats polled held the same view.

Now she is in Trump’s crosshairs. There are only two themes to his campaign. The first is that the U.S. is in dire trouble. The second is that Hillary Clinton is a criminal. The fact that “lock her up” became the defining chant of last week’s Republican convention was almost certainly no accident.

Does she deserve all the opprobrium? Probably not. On the truthfulness scale, Clinton may not score 100. But she does better than Trump who, at one point in the primaries suggested that the father of one of his rivals had been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

So what is it about Hillary? Michael Arnovitz, a blogger from Oregon, sifts through the evidence and concludes that, in large part, she is paying the political price of being a strong woman playing what is traditionally viewed as a man’s game.

It’s hard to imagine that this could be true in 2016, in a world that has lionized leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi.

But I confess I can’t think of anything else.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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