Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Hillary Clinton and the experience trap

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pictured in October 2012, has become one of the most powerful people in Washington. Here's a look at her life and career through the years:
HIDE CAPTION
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Photos: Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
Hillary Clinton's career in the spotlight
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate in 2016
  • Zelizer: But Clinton has to be careful, as her experience can turned into a liability by rivals
  • He says Clinton needs to sell her skills as well as keep her candidacy exciting and fresh
  • Zelizer: The former first lady has an impressive story to tell but can't let others define her

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton could be an excellent presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2016. After suffering through an extremely difficult loss in the primaries against Barack Obama, Clinton has managed to strengthen her resume.

As secretary of state, she improved her standing on foreign policy and earned more respect among Democrats who had been skeptical of her positions ever since her vote on the resolution to authorize force in Iraq in 2002.

The press has been showering praise on Clinton in recent months. Even though the next presidential election is more than three years away, there have been numerous stories about how Clinton can dominate the nomination process. Polls show that she comes out ahead of most Democrats as well as prominent Republicans, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

One poll conducted by the Washington Post found that 67% of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton. The Ready for Hillary super PAC has already launched its website.

"We are going to keep up the energy and excitement surrounding her potential candidacy," said the PAC's chairwoman, Allida Black. There have even been articles about why she is not the inevitable candidate, the kind of discussion that only tends to fuel the perception that she is at the top of the heap.

Bill Clinton hints at run for Hillary

But Clinton needs to be careful. In 2008, Barack Obama turned Clinton's experience as first lady and senator into a liability. Back then, Clinton was also seen as the experienced candidate who would inevitably win the nomination.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



When Clinton won the New Hampshire primary after a stunning loss in Iowa, many reporters credited her experience. Clinton did not back away from this image. "I put forth my lifetime of experience," she said. "Senator Obama will put forth a speech he made in 2002."

Sensing the mood of the Democratic electorate, Obama capitalized on the fact that he was not a Washington insider. He aggressively attacked Clinton by depicting her as the quintessential politician who was shaped by the Beltway, someone who voters could not trust to keep her word, and a Democrat who would certainly disappoint loyal members of the party by sticking to the status quo.

While Clinton's supporters boasted that no other candidate matched her skills, with each Obama victory, the press became more excited about the unexpected turn in the contest.

Hillary Clinton mania sweeps media
Baer: Natural fascination with Clintons
Hillary Clinton re-emerges

Obama did what Jimmy Carter did in 1976, when he took on Washington heavyweights such as Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Morris Udall by making experience a bad word. Ronald Reagan did the same to his Republican opponents in 1980, including George H.W. Bush, whose sterling record turned into a huge liability with primary voters.

In an era when voters distrust the government, they can often see value in the person with less experience in the system. And in an era when reporters cover elections like horse races, the underdog is often the most exciting person to write about.

Of course, Clinton was anything but "just" a Washington insider. That image was as much the creation of her opponent's political campaign as her own.

Opinion: Hillary Clinton, a mistake for 2016

Her campaign could easily have depicted her as someone who would be a fresh voice in Washington -- the first female president, a person who had struggled to make the role of the first lady something bigger, a fighter who had taken on the aggressive conservative establishment, even as her husband betrayed her before the public eye.

While in the Senate, Clinton displayed remarkable skills at winning over support among many skeptics, including Republicans who had once fought to impeach her husband. Yes, this is about experience in Washington, but her success was also a considerable asset that few politicians possess.

With all the praise that is being showered on her potential candidacy, it's easy to see Clinton facing the same challenges if she decides to run in 2016. Clinton will have to remember the lessons of 2008.

Clinton certainly deserves all the positive coverage, but she can't let it define her. For if she does decide to declare her candidacy, there might be so little excitement left by the time that it is made that the media will turn their attention to any fresh voice, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is an extremely potent politician.

The narrative that campaigns tell about a candidate plays a huge role in the outcome of a contest.

Clinton has an impressive story to tell. She has championed women's rights for decades. She embodies the drive for female equality by shattering many glass ceilings. She has deep political experiences at home and abroad. More than anyone at the moment, she has the potential to be America's female president.

If she runs, Clinton needs to make sure that her Democratic as well as Republican opponents don't turn her strength into a weakness once again.

Clinton needs to find the right balance between selling her experiences and skills and keeping the excitement that her candidacy could bring to a Democratic ticket. She needs to sell the message that her candidacy is distinct and historic. And if she could bring enthusiastic and idealistic supporters to the ballot box just as Obama was able to do, then she has a chance to truly make history.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT