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US electorate should have more choice than a duopoly

By Ian Birrell

Published 14/04/2015

Presidential bid: Hillary Clinton
Presidential bid: Hillary Clinton

It is not exactly surprising, but Hillary Clinton has confirmed what everyone already knew: she wants to be president of the United States. At least it is now official that she is having her second - and almost certainly final - shot at becoming America's first female president, something long overdue.

But she stands in sharp contrast to other women who shattered glass ceilings in Western democracies, such as Margaret Thatcher, or Angela Merkel. They transformed nations after brave battles against the system, while she is almost their mirror image: the wife of an ex-president who has benefited from his over-inflated reputation to exploit their formidable establishment machine.

At a time of public contempt for the political classes, she symbolises much that is wrong with Washington. Take the money that so corrupts politics in America.

The last White House race saw candidates spend more than $2bn - which is around 30 times the total cost of Britain's last general election. US politics has become a plaything of the super-rich. Instead of challenging this, Clinton has amassed a war chest so large that Gary Hart, another one-time Democrat front-runner, said it "ought to frighten every American".

Hart is right; it is shocking that a nation of 320 million people could be about to be offered a choice between a second Clinton and a third Bush. Barack Obama alone shattered this family duopoly over the past quarter century - and only by taking on his party establishment and stopping Clinton's last tilt at the presidency.

Clinton's candidacy feels closer to a coronation, with sky-high support among Democrats and party bigwigs and a sense almost of entitlement. The conventional wisdom has declared her unbeatable for the party's nomination. Yet she remains a plodding public speaker and a polarising figure.

The former Bill Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos once wrote that whenever she appeared before focus groups, "the line on the screen dropped like a downhill ski run". Her time as First Lady was scarred by political setbacks such as bungled healthcare reform and personal humiliations caused by her philandering husband. But she bounced back bravely.

Yet for all her fame, it remains hard to see what she really stands for in domestic terms. She left little legislative trace during her time in the Senate. More recently, she has barely spoken on economic matters while her party has moved to the Left - and when she has said something, it shifted depending on the audience.

She is "the most opaque person you'll ever meet in your life", said one Democrat senator - although adding that he would be, too, after her extraordinary life.

The picture is less fuzzy on foreign policy, but this does not make her a more promising president. She says, rather risibly, that she is neither realist nor idealist, but an "idealistic realist". Yet her track-record reveals a hawk, from supporting war in Iraq as a senator to pushing for stronger action in Afghanistan as secretary of state.

Clinton offers a candidacy laden with symbolism. She is a determined character, a doughty fighter and undeniably impressive woman. But is she really the best Democrat candidate, given her lack of authenticity, her caution, her careful triangulation, her campaigning record and her foreign policy hawkishness - not to mention her age and health concerns?

Her party should be looking forward, not back to a comfort-blanket candidate from the past.

The Republicans, for all their faults, at least seem set for a serious struggle that will see some critical issues debated and perhaps define their future.

America has, after all, always preferred democracy to coronation.

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