So now it’s official: Hillary Clinton is running for president. Unlike last time around, there are no viable candidates to run against her in the primary, which means, for better or worse, she’s what Democratic voters have to look forward to. The only question is what kind of campaign she’s going to run this time around, and whether she will build on her momentum or second guess her campaign into the ground.
It’s hard not to be apprehensive about a Clinton campaign. The 2008 primaries were lost by Clinton just as much as they were won by Obama. As her husband did in 1992, Clinton chased the older white voter so hard she ended up alienating a lot of younger people and people of color. But while that might have been a viable campaign strategy in the early 1990s, Clinton discovered, the 21st century is a much different landscape. Younger voters and people of color turned out in droves to support Obama, who felt like a major change of pace from politics as usual. And so the “inevitable” candidacy of Hillary Clinton went down in flames.
Has she learned her lessons from losing to Obama? Some early signs are good. Clinton has hired Robby Mook as her campaign manager, and he has the low-drama, data-driven style that defined the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012. And while Republican candidates are clawing at each other, Clinton has been able to strike the above-it-all pose that has served Obama well in the past.
The big issue, which is doubly unavoidable with Republicans doubling down on their war on women, is Clinton’s gender. Clinton is vying to be the first female president and can’t afford, like the fictional Selina Meyer on Veep, to simply say, “I can’t identify myself as a woman. People can’t know that.” Instead, Clinton seems to be making womanhood a central part of her campaign, by doing things like the “No Ceilings” report, which had the Clinton Foundation partnering with the Gates Foundation to address the status of women worldwide.
It’s a smart move, and not just because it will get out the female vote. By making women’s issues central to her campaign, Clinton will be turning what is largely perceived as her greatest weakness—her gender—into an asset, making it a lot harder for her opponents to try to undermine her through sexist swipes. The big question is, however, what kind of woman she is going to try to be?
The Hillary Clinton of 2008 tried to be your mom, notably wearing unflattering clothes in pastel colors. The strategy, no doubt designed to make her seem less threatening, backfired because it just made Obama seem even cooler in comparison. The contrast was epitomized by twin websites that went viral during the campaign, one called Hillary Clinton Is Mom Jeans and the other titled Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle.
But after Clinton became Secretary of the State, she got a complete makeover, becoming what Tina Fey and Amy Poehler wanted her to be: the bitch who got things done. This Hillary Clinton, who was more fond of black pant suits than pastel sweaters, was wildly popular. This time around, the viral website was Texts From Hillary, which portrayed Clinton as a badass mofo who wore sunglasses all the time and had no time for your nonsense. Her approval ratings soared, and though they have inevitably declined as she has made it clear she is, in fact, running for president, they remain higher than any of contenders on either side of the aisle.
The hope, of course, is that Clinton sees that people just like her better when she’s being the HBIC instead of trying to pretend she’s a soccer mom handing out cookies. This should seem obvious, but there’s always a strong possibility that, in a misguided effort to reach older and whiter and more male voters, the Clinton campaign will panic, puts Clinton in a sweater set and encourages her to talk about her grandbaby more. That strategy will feel safe because it’s been done before, even if it didn’t work.
But if Clinton is smart, she’ll put on those sunglasses and that black pantsuit and be the ladyboss we all wish we had: tough, smart, but compassionate. Soccer mom Hillary is too thirsty and it turns voters off. But ass-kicking Hillary makes people swoon. Hopefully, the campaign will pay heed to this difference.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.