POLITICS

This Is What Making History Looks Like

There's only one more glass ceiling between Hillary Clinton and the White House.

08/06/2016 1:25 PM AEST | Updated 09/06/2016 3:58 AM AEST
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Forty-four presidents have been elected in the United States over the past 228 years. Not once have voters had the option to choose a female candidate in a major party. Until this cycle.

Hillary Clinton officially became the presumptive Democratic nominee on Monday night. But it was sealed with pomp and circumstance on Tuesday. Victories in New Jersey and New Mexico, and early results from California, gave her enough pledged delegates to claim a majority. That, combined with her substantial lead among superdelegates, gave her enough to informally claim the nomination.

But the numbers were a boring datapoint in an otherwise historical, emotional night. Well before the first state was called, the Clinton campaign changed her Twitter profile picture to read “History made” and released a video that spotlighted the barrier she had broken. Her crowd was packed with cheering women and fathers who had brought their daughters to witness the celebratory event in Brooklyn.

"It may be hard to see tonight, but we are all standing under a glass ceiling right now. But don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one. Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone," Clinton said. "It’s the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee."

She noted that her mother was born on the day that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. She remarked that the first convention dedicated to women’s rights happened in the state where she stood that evening: New York, at Seneca Falls in 1848 -- “when a small but determined group of women and men came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights."

“We all owe so much to those who came before, and tonight belongs to all of you," Clinton said.

Gender wasn't an undertone; it was the backbone of the evening, and it gave the strongest indication to date that Clinton won't be shying away from the topic as she pivots to the general election.

The question is, how will it work?

In an interview last week, Clinton's top adviser, Joel Benenson, argued that trepidation over having the first major female candidate on the ticket -- to the extent it exists -- was unwarranted. 

"There were a whole lot of people who said, 'Oh there is no way the country is ready for an African-American president.' Not only was it ready for him. He is one of only six or seven presidents to be elected and re-elected with 50 percent of the vote or more and with two electoral colleges landslides," he said.

Other top strategists predicted on Tuesday that Clinton's gender, on the whole, would be a net plus -- invigorating voters in ways that they, and political observers, couldn't adequately anticipate. Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative, recalled the cover of the Chicago Tribune the night that Barack Obama clinched the nomination eight years ago: “Obama Makes History." Anticipating the history you're about to make doesn't prepare you for the moment you actually make it, she noted.

"There is a difference between thinking hypothetically about the first woman President and Hillary Clinton actually becoming the first female nominee of a major party, and I think for many women they will find themselves unexpectedly emotional about this," Dunn said via email. "There is also the reality that Donald Trump was sent by central casting to be the male foil in this not-buddy movie!"

Clinton, as Dunn sees it, couldn't ask for a better opponent than the one she's getting: a braggadocios businessman with a lengthy history of misogynistic comments. And it helps that Donald Trump has had an objectively abysmal start to his general election, rattled and criticized over a series of racist remarks he's made about an American judge of Mexican heritage who is overseeing a case involving his for-profit university.

Indeed, Trump's stumbles have been profound enough to spark a reassessment of strategy among Democrats. As the general election gets underway, some now see deftness in Clinton getting out of her opponent's way. "If the past couple of weeks are any indication, Donald Trump is his own worst nightmare, and they should not get in the way of him screwing himself up. Let Trump do Trump," said Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee’s former communications director who served as a senior spokesman for Clinton during her 2008 campaign.

Elleithee wasn't calling for Clinton to ignore her opponent entirely, just to make the affirmative case against his candidacy and let the other wounds be self-inflicted. Other top Democrats said they'd continue to prod Trump in order to disqualify him further with voters. "Trump has proven himself very thin-skinned, so poking him and focusing on his intemperance and intolerance can draw new eruptions and produce unexpected rewards," said David Axelrod, Obama's longtime advisor.

On Tuesday night, Clinton seemed to side with Axelrod's theory of the case, pivoting quickly to her opponent and echoing the themes of her withering speech last week, when she painted Trump as equal parts unstable and unqualified.

"Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander in chief. And he is not just trying to build a wall between America and Mexico, he is trying to wall off Americans from each other," she said at one point. "When he says, ‘Let’s make America great again,' that is code for, ‘Let’s take America backwards.’”

Johanna Barr/HuffPost
Clinton at her rally Tuesday night.

How to approach Trump is only one part of the equation Clinton now confronts as she moves from the primary to the general. The other part is the extent to which she embraces her gender. On top of that are questions about where to compete and how to bring back disaffected supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) into the fold.   

Next week, her campaign announced, she will travel to Ohio and Pennsylvania -- the former a quintessential toss-up and the latter a rust belt state where Trump will try to make inroads by appealing to white, working-class voters -- relatively conservative choices for a first general-election stop. She "has to undergird herself against incursions in the Rust Belt," said Axelrod, though he encouraged her to "take a hard look" at non-traditional states like Arizona and Georgia.

And in the near future, Obama is expected to deliver an endorsement, which the campaign anticipates will greatly help in consolidating progressive and Democratic support. On Tuesday night, however, Clinton took a stab at achieving that unity herself, appealing to Sanders' voters on policy grounds. She noted that they share an enemy and made the case that collectively they could produce change.

"If we stand together, we will rise together because we are stronger together," Clinton said.

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