Hillary Clinton will never win the presidency on the sheer force of lofty rhetoric, as her announcement speech demonstrated Saturday.
But if she does win the White House, it will be because she accomplished what her speech set out to do: harness the demographic shifts afoot in the country and deepen voters’ understanding of the best-known woman in the world.
Clinton highlighted a laundry list of proposals attractive to ascendant voting groups that formed the political base for her Democratic predecessor Barack Obama and began to show their strength under her husband Bill Clinton. She offered multiple indications that she was prepared to fight for those seeking a foothold, even if that contradicted her simultaneous pledge to usher in a new and more collaborative political future for the country.
Delivered in a park in New York honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clinton’s speech marked the big event opening of her presidential campaign, which the candidate has thus far spent fundraising and making small if telegenic drop-bys with people in key electoral states.
She vowed Saturday to soon sketch the details about her policy platform, but it was clear from what she did say that most of it will echo the desires of the last two Democratic presidents. Throughout, there was no mistaking the importance that women, the young and minority voters -- the latter two being groups that eluded her in her 2008 presidential bid -- play in her political future.
In one passage she sequentially took on Republican presidential contenders on the issues of climate change, inequality, healthcare, abortion and contraceptive rights, immigration and gay rights. Those are threshold issues for many of the voters whose support Clinton is seeking, and they are areas in which the Republican presidential candidates’ positions are far more conservative than the nation’s at large.
Clinton essentially sketched the nation’s politics as divided between aging conservative voters in the GOP’s camp, and everyone else--the swelling majority of America, assuming they vote--in hers.
"Ask many of these candidates about climate change, one of the defining threats of our time, and they’ll say: 'I’m not a scientist.' Well, then, why don’t they start listening to those who are?
"They pledge to wipe out tough rules on Wall Street, rather than rein in the banks that are still too risky, courting future failures in a case that can only be considered mass amnesia.
"They want to take away health insurance from more than 16 million Americans without offering any credible alternative. They shame and blame women, rather than respect our right to make our own reproductive health decisions.
"They want to put immigrants, who work hard and pay taxes, at risk of deportation. And they turn their backs on gay people who love each other."
Her reach for history was a recurrent theme as well.
"I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States," she noted in a joking reference to how the presidency has aged her predecessors. "And the first grandmother as well."
Part of Clinton’s challenge through 2016 will be to navigate Obama’s positives and negatives. The president, at his heights, inspired far more passion in his followers than Clinton does in hers, but he also drew antagonists with a fierceness that Clinton would like to avoid. On Saturday, she attempted to corral Obama’s voters while also acknowledging the shortcomings of his tenure.
"So we’re standing again, but we all know we’re not yet running the way America should," she said. "You see corporations making record profits, with CEOs making record pay, but your paychecks have barely budged.
"While many of you are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you see the top 25 hedge fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers combined. And, often paying a lower tax rate. So, you have to wonder: 'When does my hard work pay off? When does my family get ahead? When?' "
That was a refrain familiar to her husband’s 1992 campaign, which rested on the notion that he would stand up for Americans who "work hard and play by the rules." But as much as she hopes to benefit from positive views of Bill Clinton’s years in office, Hillary Clinton made clear that she’s resting on her own laurels.
In Saturday’s telling, she was the granddaughter of a man who worked for 50 years in a Pennsylvania lace mill, the daughter of a small businessman and of a mother who had been abandoned as a child.
Clinton recounted her life, from young attorney to senator from New York. Her years as first lady, a fraught period personally and professionally, were skipped over. Similarly, her term as secretary of State received little attention; foreign policy, a subject of intense interest to Republican candidates, didn’t enter into the speech until a half hour into her 45-minute remarks. Absent policy specifics, the State Department job served simply as further evidence of toughness.
"I’ve stood up to adversaries like [Vladimir] Putin and reinforced allies like Israel. I was in the Situation Room on the day we got Bin Laden," she said. "But, I know--I know we have to be smart as well as strong."
Clinton’s public life has been marked by great heights and perilous lows. (Her pledge to serve as president on behalf of "everyone who’s ever been knocked down, but refused to be knocked out" seemed to hold some resonance.)
She has been respected for her personal tenacity and rebuked for what occasionally has appeared to be a brittle public persona. To some extent on Saturday, she seemed to be saying--particularly to women who may feel more sympathetic to her--that she hopes the country simply takes her as she is.
She had made mistakes and will make them again, she said, but she has persevered, and on Saturday she was once again standing on a stage to declare her desire for the presidency.
"I think you know by now that I’ve been called many things by many people," she said. "'Quitter' is not one of them.”