PHILADELPHIA ― Donald Trump bragged not long ago that he could shoot someone dead on New York’s Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still love him.
The boast was meant to illustrate the loyalty of his fans. But if the Republican nominee truly wants to know how such a charge can affect a political career, he could just ask Hillary Clinton.
Murdering someone with a gun is just one of the things Clinton has been accused of over the years by her political opponents, who have attacked her for such things as profiting from insider information in the commodities market, enabling husband and former president Bill Clinton’s infidelities, and, more recently, mishandling the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
A quarter-century of drama involving the former first lady brings her to a remarkable threshold: on the doorstep of becoming the first female American president, despite being seen as a villain by a sizable segment of the population.
“There’s a narrative here, and it’s a real narrative, and she hasn’t dealt with it at all,” said David Winston, Republican pollster and former aide to Bill Clinton-era House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) “The challenge for her is the things that have happened recently that are feeding into an existing storyline.”
So ingrained is the anti-Hillary sentiment, crossing party and demographic lines, that even those too young to remember anything about Whitewater or “Troopergate” know it’s cool to dislike her -– even though they may not be quite sure why.
A private person by nature, Clinton responded through the years by throwing up even more barriers against outsiders, her supporters say, culminating in the decision that led her to use a private email server to handle her official communications as secretary of state. A November 2011 email to her top confidante stated it best: “I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible.”
Winston said the email controversy has hurt Clinton because it gives critics an opening to re-litigate the headlines of the 1990s, making them seem relevant even for younger voters. “Does the entire 18-and-over universe remember the ‘90s?” Winston asked. “No. But the political discourse that is occurring in the news media does remember them.”
And that, in turn, has made distrust of Clinton permeate across the country and across the political spectrum ― from undergraduates at the University of Virginia just before the state’s March primary who said they couldn’t trust Clinton without really being to explain why, to the female 34-year-old Republican National Convention delegate in Cleveland last week who was not sold on Trump, but said Clinton was out of the question.
“Obviously I don’t think she’s trustworthy. I mean we saw what she did in Benghazi,” said Utah’s Kendra Seeley.
In Florida, meanwhile, a recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that Clinton had fallen behind Trump by double digits on the question of who was more honest and trustworthy.
Among those in the Sunshine State who don’t trust Clinton is the 19-year-old college sophomore son of Barbara Cady. “’No one likes her, Mom.’ So I’ve been told,” Cady said Monday as she walked Center City Philadelphia with fellow Clinton delegates from Florida. She added that her son could not really articulate his reasoning. “He has no idea. And he’s a political science major.”
Clinton’s weakness in the polls has led many Republicans to grouse that their party had managed to nominate the one candidate with an even worse public image than Clinton’s. Even a senior White House aide privately noted the irony, describing the coming contest as a battle between two unlikable 1970s sitcom characters: “It’s Maude versus Archie Bunker.”
Disliked From The Start
Being disliked is nothing new for Clinton. She entered public life as the wife of Arkansas attorney general Bill Clinton, not long afterward becoming that state’s first lady ― and immediately attracted criticism for keeping her maiden name, Hillary Rodham.
When husband Bill ran for president in 1992, her image problems continued. An irritated interview response justifying her decision to pursue a career ― “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” ― brought a quick backlash, followed by a cookie bakeoff with then-first lady Barbara Bush.
Republicans at first didn’t worry about the Clintons, believing that a draft-dodging womanizer had no chance of defeating a World War II Navy pilot who had successfully prosecuted the Gulf War against Iraq and had sky-high approval ratings.
When Clinton won anyway, conservatives in particular seethed, and quickly began working to keep various controversies that had surfaced during the campaign in the public eye.
Hillary Clinton eventually came to call it a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but there was little conspiratorial about it. It was all out in the open. The well-funded “Arkansas Project” drummed up publicity about various misdeeds, which congressional Republicans, after they retook control of both chambers in the 1994 midterm elections, used as fodder for hearings and investigations.
“There arose a kind of cottage industry in the ‘90s. Kind of an Anti-Clinton Inc.,” said Mo Eillethee a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide and now the director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University. “That can take a toll on somebody.”
The Clintons frequently did not help matters with their own actions. Hillary Clinton, for example, claimed to have misplaced billing records from her Little Rock law firm related to the Whitewater investigation. They turned up much later in the White House.
“There was enough smoke that got attention, rightly or wrongly, and it was a reflection of her not being able to tamp it down,” said Winston.
Clinton defenders, though, argue that Hillary Clinton reacted to the relentless attacks the way anyone would. “I think that’s blaming the victim,” said David Brock.
Brock, in fact, owns a unique perspective on the Clintons. For much of the 1990s, he was a cog in that right-wing conspiracy as a researcher and journalist for various conservative organizations. But in 2001, he published a book that renounced that work, and today he runs the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record.
The accusation that the Clintons had Vince Foster murdered to cover up some other supposed misdeed is probably the best example of the abuse she has taken, Brock said. Foster was not merely a White House staffer. For years in Little Rock, he was Hillary Clinton’s colleague and among her closest friends. Investigations found he was suffering from depression and committed suicide, but the accusations continue to this day, now from supporters of Donald Trump.
That Hillary Clinton would decide to jealously guard her privacy after that experience should not be a surprise, Brock said. “That’s a normal response to 25 years of character assassination.”
Clinton Mistrust Is Now Part Of The Culture
Those 25 years are clearly prologue as Clinton heads toward the general election of 2016.
The Republican National Committee put together a handy poster of her “Scandal Tour” to display at its command post, two miles from the arena where Clinton will officially become the Democratic nominee. “Our mission is to expose the long and scandalous history of Hillary and Bill Clinton right here in the Democrats’ own backyard,” said RNC chairman Reince Priebus.
For Republicans looking to take back the White House after two terms on the outs, Clinton’s unpopularity is a godsend. “It was so easy to hate the Clintons because they were so successful,” said California RNC member Shawn Steel. But today, the new email scandal helps revive the older ones and, more optimistically, Hillary is nowhere near as good a politician as her husband, Steel said. On top of that, he said, there’s her voice: “She screeches. She can’t help it.”
With only 100 days left in the campaign, Clinton’s unpopularity is unlikely to go away, even her defenders admit.
“The feeling that she can’t be trusted is completely inchoate. And people can’t really articulate what it is that they can’t trust,” Brock said. “Unfortunately, it’s a mythology that’s part of the culture now.”
Georgetown’s Mo Elleithee, who was Clinton’s traveling press secretary for her 2008 presidential bid, said Clinton needs to avoid the “bunker mentality” she tends to adopt when she faces criticism ― which in turn continues a vicious cycle.
“It creates a mutual distrust. When she comes out of the bunker, and lets people see who she really is, she does well. Because she is a warm and engaging person,” Elleithee said. “I was planning my wedding while working on her campaign, and she would ask me every day, ‘Okay, what’s going on with the wedding planning?’”
Elleithee and others point out that Clinton has not always been so disliked. In fact, among her highest approval ratings came during her tenure as secretary of State. She traveled the globe, meeting with world leaders while also holding free-wheeling town hall meetings with everyday citizens. In 2012, the “texts from Hillary” internet meme briefly made her a pop icon, both hip and funny.
For Brock, that pattern offers the hope that, if she can win the election, she could enjoy a successful presidency. “When Hillary appears to be seeking a promotion and political power, her trust and approval numbers go down. When she gets the job, they go back up,” he said.
Between that possibility and today, of course, is the November election. And in that contest, Clinton is perhaps lucky that Republicans chose someone whose unpopularity matches or even exceeds her own.
Orlando’s Barbara Cady said that after only a little bit of persuasion, her Bernie Sanders-supporting son is ready to back Clinton. “Oh, he’ll vote for her,” Cady said. “He hates Trump.”