Just for a few minutes, let’s stop talking about everything that’s wrong with Hillary Clinton, and look at some of the things that are right. Maybe a good place to start is with her work to improve the lives of children, particularly those growing up in difficult circumstances.
In her 20s, Clinton did undercover research to expose schools discriminating against African Americans in Alabama ― and investigated the plight of kids with disabilities who couldn’t attend school. Later, as wife of a governor and then a president, she crusaded for better education and health care for children.
Now, as a presidential candidate, Clinton is calling to make child care more affordable, to create preschool programs available to all kids, and to broaden a network of home visiting nurses for new mothers in low-income families. If enacted, these initiatives would represent the largest single government investment in early childhood programs ever.
This is the kind of history and vision that, in a normal election, might get some attention and even make people feel good about a candidate. But in this campaign, despite the Clinton campaign’s best efforts, most people probably have very little idea that Clinton has such a long, consistent record of child advocacy ― or that, as president, she’d be pushing to try something so bold.
This is not an isolated example. Clinton is one of the smartest, most experienced candidates to seek the presidency in the modern era. She’s got an ambitious platform that’s true to her party’s core commitments, from expanding security to protecting reproductive rights. And she’s got a long record of fighting to pursue these goals.
Yet ever since Clinton announced her candidacy last summer, but especially in the last two weeks or so, the political conversation about her has dwelled on her flaws ― how she’s too secretive and too calculating, too close to Wall Street, and too integrated into the political establishment.
It’s a big reason why there are a lot of people ready to vote for her, but not so many who seem excited about it. The polls suggest Clinton is likely to win on Tuesday, but her personal approval ratings are the second-worst ever recorded for a major party nominee. It’d be enough to sink her candidacy, if only her opponent didn’t happen to be Donald Trump ― the one person whose ratings are even lower.
Not that it takes a poll number to recognize the public’s lack of enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy. She has her devoted supporters, for sure, particularly among women, who appreciate what a huge, historic accomplishment her reaching the presidency would be. But anybody who has interviewed voters ― and, I suspect, anybody who has had a conversation at a family gathering ― has heard some version of, “Ugh, I just don’t like her.”
They might vote for her to stop Trump. But they’re not happy about it.
Of course, there are many reasons why a rational, informed voter might find a Clinton candidacy unappealing ― if not for ideological reasons, then for characterological ones. But in this campaign, discussion of Clinton’s flaws has frequently seemed all-encompassing ― as if she were nothing more than the candidate who gave speeches to Goldman Sachs, who used a private email server for State Department business, and who called half of Trump’s supporters “deplorable.”
Maybe these things matter a lot. Maybe they matter a little. But other parts of Clinton’s candidacy should matter as well. And all too often, they have not.
Consider all the time Clinton has spent living down her support of her husband’s policies, particularly new trade treaties and time limits on welfare, as well as her use of the racially loaded term “super-predator” to describe young criminals in the 1990s. These are all reasonable grounds for criticism.
But an accurate accounting of her history would also include the parts that look better in hindsight ― like her efforts to create national health insurance and to promote women’s rights, and her efforts to combat economic inequality through everything from a higher minimum wage to stronger unions.
Consider, too, the grief Clinton has taken over her ties to the financial industry ― whether it’s for supporting, as senator, a bankruptcy bill that hurt consumers, or for the infamous speeches she gave to Wall Street groups. These things matter.
Yet when summaries of parts of those Wall Street speeches came out, nobody seemed to notice that she’d made a point of reaffirming her support for closing tax breaks for hedge fund managers, reducing CEO pay, and regulating risky financial products. Or that all three proposals are part of the campaign platform she’d put forward this year. Or that she’s called for a bunch of other measures ― like jacking up taxes on the rich ― that would make her friends in finance squirm.
Particularly to Trump and his Republican allies, but even to some Democrats, the real trouble with Clinton is her lack of honesty. They just don’t trust her. And Clinton, like every political figure, has had plenty of moments when she’s been less than candid.
But by the standards of presidential campaigns, Clinton’s has been remarkably truthful. Staff from the fact-checking website Politifact determined 13 percent of Clinton statements were “false” or “pants on fire” ― the category for the most dishonest statements. Nearly half of Trump’s statements qualified.
About the only attributes for which Clinton seems to get widespread credit are her smarts and her fortitude. Even her adversaries admit that she is one of the sharpest, best-informed people in Washington. And at the final presidential debate, even Trump had to concede that Clinton was a “fighter” ― that “she doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up.”
These qualities have come through because they are simply too obvious to deny. Everybody has seen the abuse she’s taken ― and her ability to fight through it. Even this compliment, however, has its underside. Many people see Clinton’s relentlessness as a sign that she is too ambitious ― that she wants power for its own sake, and wants it maybe a little too badly.
Why does Clinton get so little credit for what she does right? Gender is surely a big part of the story, as men rarely take such grief for trying to advance professionally or acquire influence. Clinton’s mutually destructive relationship with the media has played a role, too. Networks spent more time covering the email controversy than all policy issues combined, according to a Media Matters study. Throw in the sustained partisan assault she’s faced, dating back to her days in Arkansas, and suddenly the one-sided nature of the political conversation starts to make sense.
But the conversation can still change. As voters ponder their choices on Tuesday ― not just the choice of whom to support, but the choice of whether to vote at all ― they should remember that Clinton is a complicated figure, like anyone in public life. She’s got flaws, yes, but she’s got virtues, too ― from her patience and intelligence, to her dedication to public service. If voters can look more closely at her ― at everything she’s done to date, and everything she’s promising to do in the future ― they might be surprised at how much they like.