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What political experts and historians think of Clinton’s unprecedented win

June 8, 2016 at 7:40 PM EDT
Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking ascension to the Democratic party’s presidential nomination is one of the most significant victories for women in American history. For more context on this pivotal moment, Gwen Ifill talks to Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine, presidential historian Ellen Fitzpatrick and John Lawrence, former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
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GWEN IFILL: And now for some context on this historic moment.

We are joined by Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for “New York” magazine and the author of “All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation”,” presidential historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, author of the book “The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency,” and John Lawrence, visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center and former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Ellen Fitzpatrick, this takes me back to Margaret Chase Smith in 1964, Shirley Chisholm, in 1972, but neither of them got this far. How big a breakthrough, I guess, what Hillary Clinton accomplished last night?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, Author, “The Highest Glass Ceiling”: Huge, as our current candidates would say. It’s absolutely an extraordinary achievement.

I think Hillary Clinton really has been underestimated as a politician. But when you set her campaign within the long arc of history, you can see what an extraordinary achievement it is, 150 years almost since the first woman attempted to run for president, Victoria Woodhull, in the 1870s.

And now Hillary Clinton has actually won the nomination of a major — or come close to, will soon win the nomination of a major political party.

GWEN IFILL: Rebecca Traister, you know, two, four — eight years ago, when Barack Obama bested her, there was a general idea that took hold that she just really wasn’t that good a candidate, and that, even though it was close, she just couldn’t pull it off. What’s the difference between 2008 and 2016?

REBECCA TRAISTER, Author, “All The Single Ladies”: Well, I think she was running against a less formidable opponent, and that’s not to take anything away from Bernie Sanders, who ran a tremendous campaign.

And obviously he was a long-shot candidate by many measures, and he generated an enormous amount of excitement, was very inspiring, very inspiring to so many young people, so many people on the left, was wonderful.

But when she was competing against Barack Obama, she was really competing against one of the most gifted politicians of our lifetimes, I think. And the idea that she didn’t perform well in 2008, there were all kinds of problems with her campaign, and she wasn’t as good a candidate in 2008, but she did have a very strong performance.

Remember that she earned 18 million votes in 2008. I mean, both she and Obama ran exceptional campaigns, by some measures, in terms of getting people enthusiastic and involved in the process.

In this case, I think the campaign was stronger. She’s a more comfortable and a more confident candidate this time around. I think that she trusted herself a little bit more. She still has flaws. She’s still not wonderful on a big stage.

But I think that she was much more in control of her campaign and her candidacy this time, and I think she just wasn’t up against a superstar like Barack Obama, all respect to Bernie Sanders.

GWEN IFILL: John Lawrence, you worked for Nancy Pelosi for some time. We still remember that moment when she became speaker of the House and the huge gavel was handed over to her.

How different was it when a woman, in her — in this case, for speaker of the House, became such a breakthrough candidate?

JOHN LAWRENCE, Former Chief of Staff to Nancy Pelosi: It was a very historic moment.

And I think maybe you remember that she asked all the children who were in the chamber to come up and join her on the podium, although that was technically against the rules, because she wanted to symbolize the importance of a woman, and someone who was primarily concerned about the economics and the needs of American families, to be part of that transition.

But Speaker Pelosi used to say, now we have made history. Now we have to make progress. And I think she was very adamant about wanting to define the importance of her accession speakership in terms of the legislation and the policy goals that she sought, not simply in terms of gender.

GWEN IFILL: And yet I heard a lot of discussion then, as now with Hillary Clinton, about her hair, about her clothes, about the fact that her husband shopped for her, what designers she wore, which you didn’t generally hear about men.

JOHN LAWRENCE: No, I actually worked for somebody for 30 years before that, and if I could get him to comb his hair, I thought that was a major accomplishment.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN LAWRENCE: I think that’s true. I think it’s true that women are still subjected to a standard that most male candidates and male officeholders are not subjected to.

We used to talk in the office about the fact that John Boehner would cry at the drop of a hat. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi had cried when she faced a difficult vote. So, there’s a different standard.

But the women who get to this stage in politics, just like women who get to this stage in other very competitive areas of life, they have learned to live with the challenges that are thrown at them.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, you’re on a college campus. Perhaps you can explain to us part of the generational divide that we have seen. I don’t know whether we’re talking about strategy or ideology or just fact.

What’s the leap for young women in — why are they so — so many of them so unimpressed by this kind of breakthrough?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I’m not sure that that’s actually true, Gwen.

And I think we have to see how things unfold in the next few months. It is the case, of course, that Bernie Sanders really excited a lot of college students, and I think they were drawn to his message, his idealism, the scope of his progressive platform, and less so perhaps to Hillary Clinton, or clearly so.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Rebecca Traister, you spent some time with her on the campaign trail prior to the final primaries.

And I wonder, A, if that’s true. And I wonder if, instead of not knowing her well enough, we feel that we know Hillary Clinton too well?

REBECCA TRAISTER: Yes, all those things are true.

In part, I think that what Ellen is talking about is very true. There is more enthusiasm for her than is necessarily made clear by the media narratives around her. I mean, after all, look, she — she won more votes. I mean, despite all the stories about the enormous enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, which clearly existed amongst young people and people of all ages, Hillary Clinton got three million more votes than he did in the end.

There is obviously enthusiasm about her, but there are some translation issues around how to express that enthusiasm. And I think that that’s something that has to change. One of the things that I did notice on the campaign trail, as I mentioned, she’s very bad in these big, inspiring — well, not very bad.

She can be bad in these big, inspiring speech contests — context, the big stages. But she’s really an exceptional retail politician. And when you’re with her not just one-on-one in a kind of social or friendly situation, but watching her shake the hands of voters, of local politicians, address rooms full of people talking about their individual stories, their issues, she really lights up a room and people get thrilled about her.

And that doesn’t often come through in the media coverage of her.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Well, of course, Judy Woodruff just interviewed Hillary Clinton, so I will let the viewers judge how well she did with the press.

But I want to ask John Lawrence here about the Donald Trump factor, which is, with Donald Trump as the foil, macho guy, not hesitating to challenge, to throw the gauntlet down, does that change what she has to do as a breakthrough woman candidate?

JOHN LAWRENCE: I think that Trump in that sense is a bit of a gift, because he has such a strong misogynist tone to so much of what he says, that he almost insulates Mrs. Clinton against some of what might otherwise be questions about being a woman or being the first woman candidate.

I think the other problem that Mr. Trump will find running against Secretary Clinton is that security is a very high-priority issue, and particularly a high-priority issue with women voters. To be running against somebody who was a secretary of state, a United States senator, sat in the Situation Room, met with dozens of foreign national leaders, and then play that off against a complete lack of experience, I think, really will cause a lot of voters who might otherwise be somewhat ambivalent to Mrs. Clinton say, in a world that is as uncertain and as dangerous as this world, we really — we really feel more comfortable with somebody who has been around the track, as she has.

GWEN IFILL: I’m afraid we are going to have to come back to this topic again and again as the year unfolds to see if what you just said is true, for instance.

John Lawrence, thank you very much. Rebecca Traister and Ellen Fitzpatrick, thank you as well.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.

JOHN LAWRENCE: Thanks.

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