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What losing in 2008 taught Hillary about how to win in 2016

Hillary Clinton walks onstage for the release of the Clinton Foundation's No Ceilings Full Participation Report
Hillary Clinton walks onstage for the release of the Clinton Foundation's No Ceilings Full Participation Report
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When Hillary Clinton launches her campaign Sunday, she’ll do something no other plausible presidential candidate – including Clinton herself – has done before: she’ll run like a woman.

If she plays it right, it will be a feature, not a bug, of Hillary for President (2016 remix). The feminine motif will be fully integrated into her persona, her rhetoric, and her platform, according to interviews with a half-dozen sources close to Clinton.

That’s a hell of a pivot from her 2008 campaign, when she all but refused to acknowledge what some of her advisers failingly insisted was intrinsic to her story. The new approach also owes to a shift in political atmospherics that favors attention to lower- and middle-class economic concerns, such as early-childhood education and paid time off, that motivate women voters, as well as many of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

"The culture has changed on these issues," said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and a former Clinton policy aide. "Hillary has not changed on these issues."

There’s an obvious gap, a window of opportunity, separating women’s participation in elections and their power in government. Women made up 53 percent of the electorate in the 2012 presidential election, and yet only 104 of the 535 full voting seats in the House and Senate are held by women. The historic dominance of men in elective office, from the presidency to Congress and the statehouses, has led to a chronic tilt away from the perspectives and priorities of women.

Clinton’s strategy weaves together the immutably unique and historic aspect of her candidacy — her gender — with a domestic and foreign policy worldview that emphasizes the ways in which the full participation of women in society leads to greater stability and economic growth. In a similar vein, the cultural shift that Tanden points to can be seen in the Republican field’s quick adoption of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric – if not his policy choices – on economic inequality.

Ann O’Leary, a former Clinton adviser who has worked with her on the Clinton Foundation’s early childhood education program over the past couple of years, says that pattern will repeat itself on family issues of particular importance to women that have become hot topics for men, too.

"Any candidate, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or someone on the other side of the aisle, is going to have to take positions on these issues, because there’s more demand for it," she says.

Clinton's transformation begins

Clinton’s shift began with her concession speech in June 2008: She agreed to talk about herself and her place in the women's movement only after intense pressure from a set of her advisers who had lost out during the campaign. Ultimately, she spoke of the "18 million cracks" her supporters had put in the glass ceiling of the White House with their votes. She echoed Sojourner Truth’s famous "Ain’t I a woman" speech in weaving together the hopes of women and African Americans that day, and used Harriet Tubman to accomplish the same rhetorical union in her Democratic National Convention speech that same year.

At the State Department, Clinton created the post of ambassador for global women’s issues, directed American diplomats to push their foreign counterparts on the rights of women and girls, and established programs such as the "Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves" a partnership of governments, businesses and nonprofits that is designed to protect women from the deadly fumes of open-fire cooking.

Now she has concluded that running as a woman — and emphasizing issues that bolster the security of women and their families — is a strength that melds her political and policy identities and addresses some of her biggest problems as a candidate.

Still, it’s a strategy that even allies acknowledge comes with the risk that Clinton could turn off voters by overplaying the gender card.

"You don’t want to get so pigeonholed," one veteran Clinton adviser said. "I don’t think she wants to run as the woman candidate just for women."

It's about you and me, not just me

Hillary on panel

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Clinton’s at her best when she’s the champion of a cause — particularly an underdog constituency — that is larger than herself. The clearest examples come from her equation of women's rights and gay rights with human rights.

But she's been knocked, and fairly, for too often making her political story about herself, like when she kicked off her last campaign by declaring, "I’m in, and I’m in to win." This time, she's determined to connect herself with others first as an advocate and then as a presidential aspirant.

"She needs to explain to people why she wants to do this that is not about her," the veteran adviser said.

That’s why she’ll start with a listening tour. That’s nothing new: Clinton conducted listening tours on proposed changes to Medicare when she was first lady and before her 2000 Senate campaign in New York. When she launched her first presidential campaign in 2007, she did "more talking than listening," the Associated Press observed.

Now she wants to show that her platform is, at least in part, a reaction to public demand. That is, don’t expect thick policy briefs to appear online anytime soon.

"She’s very much going to be in listening mode before she starts rolling out policies," said O'Leary, the former Clinton aide who worked with her on early-childhood education.

Will the real Hillary Clinton please stand up?

Kara & Clinton

(Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for LeadOn:Watermark's Silicon Valley Conference for Women)

After years of high-profile battles — with Republicans, the press, and even members of her own party — Clinton retreated into a defensive posture in public. That was evident during her book tour and at an uncomfortable press conference after it was revealed that she prevented the State Department from having access to her email.

A byproduct of that defensiveness, bordering at times on paranoia, has been that she has struggled to come off as genuine in the eyes of her detractors and even some of her loyal allies.

Again, running as a woman begins to address that deficiency as a candidate. There’s no storyline in Clinton’s career that is as consistent as her efforts to advance the causes of women and girls.

From her early work at the Children’s Defense Fund through her roles as first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, secretary of state, and philanthropist, Clinton’s rhetoric and areas of policy focus — from expanding health insurance to securing human rights for women — have been inextricably tied to a desire to strengthen women’s standing in society.

Republicans know both parts of that: that she’s been consistent on women’s rights, and that she is perceived as less than honest. That’s why they made hayof donations to the Clinton Foundation from countries with bad records on women’s rights and why Rand Paul, who launched his candidacy on Tuesday, told Politico, "There’s a lot of stuff there that is, I think, going to shake the confidence of Americans in her ability to lead in an honest fashion."

The shift: is it about us?

Hillary & People

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Last but not least, the electorate has shown signs that it’s more inclined to support both women candidates and an issue set that Clinton has pushed in the past and that will be emphasized more in this campaign.

Clinton will promote those issues as essential to strengthening families, particularly in the lower and middle economic strata. While some of the specifics may have to wait, they’re likely to include moving toward equal pay for women, expanding paid leave for parents, increasing the minimum wage, cutting the costs of childcare, cutting taxes for the middle class, and providing access to pre-kindergarten education across the country.

Clinton will frame the basket of kitchen-table issues as strengthening the economic standing of families, even as many of the policy goals would disproportionately benefit women — and appeal to women voters. That could force Republican candidates into difficult choices about whether to support small-government orthodoxy in the face of increasing demand for policies that help families balance work and home life.

The Republican governors of Indiana, Texas, and New Mexico highlighted their own efforts to boost early-childhood education in their state-of-the-state addresses this year. Yet Indiana Gov. Mike Pence turned down federal funding to expand his state’s more targeted plan last year, explaining in an Indianapolis Star op-ed, "I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program without federal intrusion."

Ultimately, Clinton and her advisers believe they’ve found a way to marry the narrative of the nation’s cultural shift toward women with her personal story.

"Gender will be certainly more of an issue this time than last time, in part because there’s going to be a strong effort to talk about who she really is," one longtime Clinton hand said, adding, "The trailblazing doesn’t end with her inauguration."