A year ago, any New Yorker with a healthy degree of interest in politics as spectator sport was mulling the possibility that the 2008 election might yield a Gotham trifecta: a three-way tussle between Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg. The prospect was intoxicating and amusing and required only a modest willing suspension of disbelief. Hillary and Rudy were still the nominal front-runners in the races for their respective parties’ nominations, and Mayor Mike’s people were talking openly about a $1 billion independent bid for the White House.
But, alas, it was not to be. Not only did the trifecta fail to materialize, but by June the trio of local presidential wannabes were all slumped glumly on the sidelines, watching the most compelling campaign of our lifetimes unfold without them in it. The effect on their reputations, however, was far from uniform. Bloomberg’s months-long dalliance left him looking unusually waffly (or prick-teasey). Giuliani’s implosion rendered him a not-ready-for-prime-time player. But Clinton’s failure had the converse impact: She somehow emerged from the wreckage of her campaign a larger, more significant figure. Her national favorable ratings, 53 percent, versus 26 percent unfavorable, are higher today than they’ve been since early 1999. She has proven to be that rare presidential candidate who manages to win by losing.
This was true even before her selection earlier this month as Barack Obama’s secretary of State. Clinton entered the race for the Democratic nomination with ample resources, financial and institutional. What she didn’t possess was either a winning message or persona. She was a maladroit performer, shape-shifting and awkward, whose bedrock rationales for running—her experience and capacity to wage relentless war on the GOP—missed the yearnings for change and post-partisanship animating the electorate. Her attempts at humanizing herself were comical, pathetic: Remember, please, her “likability tour” of Iowa.
But after all was effectively lost for Hillary, something odd occurred: She found her footing, found her voice, found her raison d’être. The tears in New Hampshire. The shots and beers in Indiana. The union halls, the frenzied rope lines, the string of scrappy victories when everyone kept telling her she was toast. The heartfelt, at times even stirring, Election Night orations. The final paean to the “18 million cracks” that she and her supporters had put in “that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
Clinton’s late-stage fighter’s stance struck more than a few Democrats as cynical or desperate or both; they worried that she would scorch the earth, rend the party, cripple Obama. But millions of others detected something new and resonant in Clinton: resilience, determination, guts. They became the core of the constituency that she built on the road to defeat—a constituency as passionate and loyal as any in politics.
That one of her admirers turned out to be Obama came as a shock to many but not to those who know him best. And no one was more surprised by the Cabinet offer he extended than Hillary herself. Her ambivalence toward Obama remained, no doubt, but she found a way past it—a sign of her maturity, her devotion to service, her appreciation of the dimensions of this moment, and her grasp of her self-interest all rolled into one. By rechanneling her ambitions, Clinton has placed herself in a position to play a central role in a project at once historic and geopolitically essential: the resuscitation of America’s alliances and the restoration of Brand U.S.A. abroad. A job as big as the presidency? No. But a role commensurate with her skills and stature and one nearly as challenging as anything her husband tackled during his mellow-yellow time in office.
It would be easy to dismiss the transformation of Hillary as a matter of no particular import to New Yorkers. She was, in a way, the ultimate carpetbagger—a woman who used our fair state as a way station between two stints in Washington. But carpetbaggery has a long and noble pedigree in New York; Hillary is ours as much as Bobby Kennedy was, arguably even more so. In her eight years here, she became a politician in her own right, and a surprisingly good one. When she arrived, the construct framing her public image was still Bill and Hillary, then it gradually shifted to Hillary and Bill, then finally simply to Hillary—Hillary!—in 2008. New York was perhaps the only stage capacious and glamorous enough to accommodate that metamorphosis. It was also the place where she was finally able to divorce herself from her husband—only politically, but still!