On the road (again) with Hillary Clinton

Inside the Democratic presidential front-runner's talked about, polarizing and possibly pointless campaign

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

You might think Hillary Rodham Clinton would have had quite enough of women in blue dresses, but here she is in a hotel ballroom full of them. She is in Columbia, S.C., campaigning full-time for the American presidency 17 months before election day, pledging to raise the minimum wage, reminding her audience how she toiled as a teenager in her father’s silkscreen-printing plant—just like an ordinary person!—and making jokes about her perpetually blond hair.

“Presidents grow greyer and greyer, until they are as white as the building they live in,” the 67-year-old ex-first lady, ex-U.S. senator, and ex-secretary of state is saying on her first visit to the Palmetto State since she was trounced and humiliated here by Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I have one big advantage: I’ve been colouring my hair for years! You won’t see me turn white in the White House!”

At this, the ladies in lavender, cerulean, royal blue and navy hoot with indecorous glee. It is the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council’s annual Day in Blue and, with their beloved Obama’s presidency waning like a Dixie moon, the unavoidable next nominee of their party has deigned to grace them with half an hour of (unpaid) love.

“I do know how hard this job I’m seeking is,” Clinton says, all joking aside, wearing her signature electric-blue three-piece pantsuit. “You won’t catch me wondering what it’s like.” She reminds her audience of the hard-fought South Carolina primary of 2008, which just happened to be the time and place where Bill Clinton called Obama’s apotheosis “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” “He won and I lost,” Clinton says now, slamming the door on the past.

“I liked Bill and I like the Clintons,” one of the attendees, a cybersecurity-policy expert named Gloria Butler, tells Maclean’s. “They are real people with real problems.”

“Do you support Hillary just because she is female?” one wonders. “That’s it. That’s it,” Butler replies. Butler, the widow of a career soldier and the mother of a son on active duty in the U.S. Air Force—and, like Clinton, a new grandmother—boasts that she was glued to Hillary’s Twitter feed in April, when the former first lady declared she would, indeed, seek her party’s nomination for the Oval Office in 2016.

The announcement was a huge surprise, said no one ever. But, under U.S. campaign-finance law, the declaration forced an end to two years of for-profit speechifying by Clinton and her husband that raked in tens of millions of dollars and earned widespread condemnation from jealous Republicans and even some left-leaners. (From now on, she can only solicit contributions to her campaign.) “You’re rich enough, Hillary Clinton,” sniffed the Washington Post. “Or are you?”

“Transparency, when it comes to pay, is our friend,” Clinton says in Columbia, convincing no one ever. Yet, down in South Carolina’s tidy capital city, the Clintons’ acquisitiveness is not being seen as a fatal flaw. “When I look at them, I don’t see money,” says Butler. “I see ambition. I see family values. But I didn’t say I see morals.”

“She’s a business, she’s a brand, she’s just like McDonald’s,” reasons Dionne Fleshman, who owns and operates a human-resources staffing firm a few doors down Richland Street from Hillary’s state headquarters. “I say, ‘Girl, go for it!’ If that would work for me, I’d be trying to get it, as well . . . You use the connections you have to get where you want to go, but it’s up to you to stay there.”

Fleshman says she will support Clinton in 2016 for two reasons: Like the vast majority of African-Americans, she considers her adherence to the Democratic Party to be as immutable as Clinton’s Clairol; and, as she puts it, “she can relate to my femininity—the desire that we all have to be independent yet cared for, successful yet supported.”

“Could you accept Hillary Clinton as ‘America’s Grandma?’ ” a Day in Blue attendee named Ann Willbrand, second vice-chair of the outnumbered Democrats of heavily Republican Aiken County, down by the Georgia state line, is asked. “No, but I didn’t want to have a beer with George W. Bush, either,” Willbrand answers. “The question is whether she can get the message out that she really needs to get out: that she can relate to people. If she messages right, she could even peel off some of the white country-club women where I live.”

“In 2008, I was Hillary-bound because she’s a woman,” Butler explains. “Then Barack started making those beautiful speeches and he won me over, maybe because he looks like me and that was something I thought I’d never see in my lifetime. But this time, as soon as Hillary made her announcement, I was one of the first 12 people to send in my five dollars.”

“Attagirl!” hollers another Woman in Blue from a nearby settee. “Big time!”

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is as certain to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 as it is that she-crabs will be slaughtered to make soup in South Carolina. So far, only two men have stepped to the plate against her: 52-year-old Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and ex-mayor of apocalyptic Baltimore; and Bernie Sanders, 73, the red-eyed socialist who fled his native Brooklyn in the 1960s for the free-love communes of Vermont, then stayed long enough to become that state’s senator.

Last week, a poll by the Des Moines Register of 437 Iowa Democrats showed Clinton with an 86 per cent favourable rating and 56 per cent voter support; Sanders with a paltry 16 per cent; and O’Malley with two per cent. Yet Hillary will be back in Iowa to meet with her county organizers on June 13—hours after she holds her first mass (she hopes) rally of the campaign in Manhattan with Bill by her side.

On the Republican side, by the time the dust settles (or some of the older candidates bite it), 20 or more gladiators may have declared themselves. Party bigwigs have announced that no more than 10 of them will be allowed to debate each other at a time, lest the stage collapse.

A mere four of the 50 states wield the lion’s share of nominating power. Corny, conservative Iowa matters most, especially to the Republican horde. There, the faithful of both parties will convene in their respective caucuses in January 2016, followed (or preceded) within days by the partisans of New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. (The exact dates are not yet set.) A loss in any two of these contests often proves fatal to a candidate’s momentum, media coverage and fundraising. The duly registered party members of California, Texas and New York—the three largest states by population—could have no say in who the nominees will be.

Related: American politics have become a family affair

South Carolina’s status as the first primary state with a large African-American population is the reason why Clinton, on the way to her speech to the Women in Blue, pops into Kiki’s Chicken and Waffles in a down-market strip mall in uptown Columbia. This is another instalment of the “listening and learning tour” she’s already been pursuing for several weeks in New Hampshire and Iowa.

(South Carolina will go Republican in the general election in 2016, as it has in every presidential contest since 1980. But black voter turnout will be crucial to Clinton’s chances nationwide, so she needs to show an avid interest in African-American affairs.)

Standing outside the restaurant as Clinton sits down inside with half a dozen pre-selected “minority-women small-business owners” are Drew Carilli, the second-generation proprietor of the nearby House Beautiful Floors & More emporium, and his sales associate, Amy Pinelli. “I think her being a woman plays a huge part in her popularity,” Pinelli observes. “I was very impressed how she stayed with Bill when he cheated on her. If it was me, I would have thrown him out of the White House.”

“I think America is ready for a woman president,” Carilli testifies. “The question is: Is America ready for her? Maybe part of America is, but not the southern part. If she wants to win down here, she needs to act more like a Republican and be more conservative. Americans don’t just want talk; they want the meat and potatoes. Or the chicken and waffles.”

Mike Segar/Reuters

Mike Segar/Reuters

Back downtown, Pounding the pavement outside the hotel where Clinton is addressing the true-blue South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council, are three aggrieved citizens. One is a man holding a sign that reads, simply: “Hillary’s corrupt.” The second is a white-haired man who is shouting, “Dead Americans! Hillary turned her back on ’em! Dead Americans! Do ya care?”

This protest is in reference to the slaughter of four U.S. diplomats at their consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, and Clinton’s response after a bitter interrogation by a congressional committee: “What difference at this point does it make?” Two years later, Clinton’s supporters seem weary of the whole Benghazi affair, not to mention the Whitewater conflict-of-interest scandal that has been shadowing the Clintons since Arkansas.

The third person is a 60-year-old woman in a (what else?) blue dress: Cara Carleton (Carly) Fiorina, the only female (so far) in the Republican presidential derby, who is holding an impromptu news conference on the sidewalk on her way to her own lunch-hour talk to the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women at another hotel a couple of blocks away.

Later in the day, Fiorina, whose tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. was abruptly terminated in 2005, hies to the town of Spartanburg, S.C. She tells the audience of about 150 white people and one black man that “sometimes, getting fired is the price of leadership.”

“I think people feel a deep disquiet,” Fiorina tells the Spartanburgers. “We are losing the sense of limitless possibilities and tangling people’s lives up in webs of dependence.”

The former tech exec quotes the Democratic Franklin D. Roosevelt—“the presidency is a position of moral leadership,” a slap at the randy and greedy Clintons —and delivers what has become her go-to aphorism: “Your life is God’s gift to you; what you make of your life is your gift to God.”

Among the people in the folding chairs at Spartanburg are Kathy Behlert and Celia Anderson. They already have seen five of Fiorina’s rivals come to town in this election cycle: senators Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, governors John Kasich and Rick Perry, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. But they both remain uncommitted. “Why not Hillary Clinton?” the women are asked. “Let me count the ways,” says Anderson.

“How about Whitewater?” Behlert muses. “Hillary Clinton is a wonderful woman. The problem is with her policies.”

“How about Benghazi?” Anderson follows on. “How about the 3 a.m. phone call that never came? She’s proven that she’s not up to the task.

At the microphone, the candidate in the blue dress is giving her formula for prosperity at home and victory over Islamism abroad: Arm the Kurds. End bulk-data collection. Shred the 70,000-page federal tax code.

“We’ve never had a woman president,” Fiorina smiles. “I’m just sayin’.”

Rick Wilking/Reuters

Rick Wilking/Reuters

A few days north of the Carolinas, on stage in a make-believe White House a block off Broadway, Hillary Clinton writhes again. This is the New York production of Clinton the Musical, a profane, rollicking and not very subtle look at president Bill’s White House scandals, in which the most memorable number, delivered by a lascivious Monica Lewinsky, can be transcribed roughly as, “I’m effing the effing president! Oh yeah, oh yeah!”

Meanwhile, the first lady, portrayed in a blue pantsuit (of course) by the acclaimed Brooklyn-born belter Kerry Butler, cowers in the Oval Office, torn between duty, ire, shame and love. “I have had enough. I’ve made up my mind. Enough is enough,” the betrayed Hillary sings. But, as the curtain falls, she remains with her famously fallible man, her eye, perhaps in 1999 already, on the prize of a presidency of her own.

It has been more than 20 years since the first bumper stickers appeared that read “Impeach Clinton . . . and her husband,” and 16 years since the U.S. Senate narrowly acquitted a lying president of having committed high crimes and misdemeanours. Now it’s time for the American electorate to once again judge the Clintons, to award or deny them what certainly would be the most singular presidency in history.

“I was young then,” Kerry Butler says now, after the theatre goes dark. “I believed Bill when he said he didn’t do it. And I felt so bad for her.” Butler says she laboured for weeks to learn more about the real Hillary Rodham Clinton before discovering a woman “who is so normal that it is hard to find anything to latch on to.”

“Do you think scandal is still the thing that defines her?” Butler is asked. “I don’t see her as that now,” the actor replies. “She has been a senator, she’s done enough on her own. People come to our show who’ve never even heard of Monica Lewinsky.”

“I love her,” Butler says. “I’ll do anything to help her win.”

“Would you appear with her in your blue pantsuit?”

“I don’t think she’s going to ask me.”