The Hillary Clinton Catch-22

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Photo: Pete Marovich/Corbis

To say that America has had a love-hate relationship with Hillary Rodham Clinton is a dramatic understatement. As stats god Nate Silver pointed out, the line graph of her approval ratings is the shape of a Six Flags roller coaster. And when you align the polls with recent political history, a particular pattern emerges: Hillary’s polling is up when she’s down.

“When she has been actively engaged in the hand-to-hand combat that characterizes election campaigns and battles in Congress,” Silver writes, “her favorability ratings have taken a hit, only to recover later.” Hillary’s potential is exciting, but her power is intimidating. She’s trapped in the catch-22 of female ambition: To succeed, she needs to be liked, but to be liked, she needs to temper her success.

Hillary’s appearance on the arm of an aspiring presidential candidate at the dawn of the nineties was met with ambivalence. "You know,” a reporter said to her during the 1992 Democratic primary, “some people think of you as an inspiring female attorney mother, and other people think of you as the overbearing yuppie wife from hell.”

It wasn’t until after the election — and after Hillary stood by Bill amid the first reports of extramarital affairs, telling Arsenio Hall they didn’t fight “about anything important” — that her approval ratings climbed above 50 percent. As she tackled correspondence and social events and family-friendly issues befitting a first lady, America started to come around.

That is, until Bill put her in charge of reforming the nation’s health-care system. Her approval ratings went down in flames, and health-reform efforts followed suit. But all it took was some fresh humiliation in the form of a beret and a blue dress to endear her to us again. Her approval rating peaked during her husband’s impeachment, then immediately plummeted when she announced her interest in running for Senate from New York.

She rekindled the romance — the on campaign trail and Capitol Hill and beyond — by behaving like an eager unknown instead of a global celebrity. She took a dingy basement office and poured coffee for more-senior male senators. We loved her again.

Then she became the “inevitable” nominee in the 2008 Democratic primary. “She was a powerful woman who couldn’t be stopped, and this was incredibly disconcerting,” says Rebecca Traister, who wrote the book Big Girls Don’t Cry about gender and the 2008 campaign. “I’m not trying to delegitimize resistance to Hillary’s candidacy, but there’s a degree of it that was perhaps unconsciously about a superpowerful woman coming in and saying she could just be president.”

Swept up in a wave of post-electoral euphoria and reconciliation, we cheered as she humbly accepted Obama’s request to become our secretary of State. While Silver points out that people in nonelected offices generally have higher ratings, some of Hillary’s popularity rebound was surely a result of her behavior. “She did what Hillary always does, which is play well with others,” Traister tells me. “She cooperated with her former competitor Barack Obama and is, by all accounts, loyal to him. She has put her nose to the grindstone. She’s so tired because she’s put herself out there in service of the administration. What’s not to love?”

And so America is “on again” with Hillary. We’re breathlessly speculating about 2016. We’re giggling about her text messages and reblogging photos of her snapping selfies with Meryl Streep. Hillary is on the verge of retirement, admittedly exhausted after four years of globetrotting in service of our great nation and President Obama’s agenda, and has no declared plans for the future beyond watching Love It or List It and getting back on the elliptical. And she’s never been cooler.

Herein lies one of the most useful, but also saddest, lessons of Hillary Clinton’s career: The best defense against being labeled a raging bitch is to convince people you’re an underdog. The ability to eat shit, to suck it up and earn the affection of skeptical voters or older male colleagues or your cheating husband, again and again, is an essential skill for successful women of Hillary’s generation. A skill that is becoming less essential, sure, but one that few women would declare irrelevant.

The current Internet-fueled lovefest between Hillary and America is probably as doomed as Romeo and Juliet. But when I lament to Traister that we’ll probably turn on Hillary again, she surprises me with some optimism: “If she runs for president, I do think it’ll be different,” Traister says. “I won’t say we’ll just repeat 2008, because there are dynamics that shifted. From gender perspective and a race perspective, it did begin to shift how these power structures work. I do think there’s a warmth toward Hillary that is new. We’re seeing a creation of a new version of hard-ass Hillary that will not undo the aggression that people will inevitably express but will complicate it.”

When New York Times columnist Gail Collins interviewed Hillary last month, Collins assessed her professional history: “Controversial first lady to betrayed first lady to beloved first lady. Clumsy carpetbagging Senate candidate to New York treasure. Failed presidential candidate to international icon.” She concluded, “The theme, it seemed to me, was that you play the cards you’re dealt.”

Hillary’s reply: “I choose my cards. I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.” It’s pretty common for politicians or diplomats to claim that their success is a result of careful strategy, but this rings even truer for Hillary. And here’s where her most hateful critics, those who charge her with being a conniving, nepotistic, carpetbagging chameleon, kind of have a point: Hillary has had to become adept at pretending she’s something she’s not. When she’s herself — a woman with formidable intelligence, years of experience, and powerful connections — America can’t stand her.

I hope Traister is right, that our boom-and-bust cycle of affection for Hillary is becoming less extreme. After years of watching all of these different Hillaries, maybe we’re finally leveling out in the middle. If she declares her 2016 candidacy and the affectionate memes continue, we’ll have our answer.