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
<<
<
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
>
>>
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
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT