America's momentous 2016 primary season ended June 7 with two atypical events: struggling Hillary Clinton had a great night, and maverick Donald Trump sounded presidential, (in the traditional sense). Though Trump struck all the right notes in a speech that many Republicans hope will set the tone for the rest of his campaign, the evening belonged to Clinton.
Not only did she lock down the Democratic nomination, but she turned back a strong challenge from Bernie Sanders in California. Though recent polls showed Sanders only two points behind, Clinton took the state by double digits.
With that, Clinton became the first woman, and the first spouse of a former president, to earn a major party nomination for the presidency. The centrality of these "firsts" to the Clinton narrative is hard to overestimate.
At the October Democratic debate, when Anderson Cooper asked: "Secretary Clinton, how would you not be a third term of President Obama?" Clinton replied: "Well, I think that's pretty obvious. I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we've had up until this point, including President Obama."
At the February debate, when Sanders suggested that the former First Lady, New York Senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State—having spent a quarter-century at the center of national attention—was an establishment figure, Clinton responded: "Well, look, I've got to just jump in here because, honestly, Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment."
And immediately following the California victory, her campaign blasted out an email with a handwritten note from Clinton thanking supporters who helped "put a crack in that glass ceiling."
Thus, Hillary Clinton assumes the helm of the Democratic Party as the ultimate role model for women. The role Clinton models, however, foregoes Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's advice to Lean In and redefines traditional masculine and feminine roles in favor of "Princeton Mom" Susan Patton's advice to Marry Well. Patton, who achieved national notice with a viral letter in The Daily Princetonian, advised Princeton women to spend three-quarters of their time on campus looking for a husband, noting that smart, qualified, capable men are over-represented among Princeton's students, and that the odds of finding a quality husband would never again be quite as good.
Though Hillary Rodham did her undergraduate work at Wellesley—a women's college—she did find her man at Yale Law School. The political and financial partnership that Bill and Hillary Clinton forged has been documented and discussed widely—and it was one for which Hillary's sacrifices far exceeded anything that Patton recommended.
The smart, ambitious, but politically wooden Wellesley/Yale grad set off for a life in Arkansas, riding the coattails of the smart, ambitious, politically gifted Lothario she had married. Excepting her aide and acolyte Huma Abedin, it's unclear how many women want to follow the path that Clinton has blazed—explaining in part Sanders's strong showing among young Democratic women.
Nonetheless, on Tuesday June 8, Hillary Clinton did make history. The first First Lady to accept and fail at an important policy role (overseeing an overhaul of the nation's health care system that even a Democratic Congress could not swallow) and the first Cabinet member to list copious airplane travel as one of her primary accomplishments, has moved within striking distance of becoming our nation's first female President.
The only things now standing in her way are a lack of substantive accomplishments, a charisma deficit, a likely contested convention, an FBI investigation, and Donald Trump.
Trump, the ultimate showman, branding genius, and political neophyte, has shown himself to be a resourceful adversary. His deft references to Bill Clinton's mistreatment of women has already turned Clinton's gender issue against her, and he has begun to dredge up the many scandals that have plagued the Clintons since their earliest forays into simultaneous politicking and moneymaking.
He has reached out to Sanders's supporters to exploit the divisions within the Democratic caucus. He will make use of the FBI investigation whether or not Obama's Justice Department allows it to proceed to an indictment. Clinton, in turn, will contrast her long experience in and around government, and her fluency with policy, to Trump's preference for platitudes and promises over policy details.
The contrast is likely to prove illuminating. P.J. O'Rourke endorsed Clinton because "she's wrong about absolutely everything, but she's wrong within normal parameters." That very normalcy makes it possible to contemplate her presidency in normal terms: We expect it to combine the consensus building of Barack Obama, the personal rectitude of Bill Clinton, and the integrity of Richard Nixon. While Trump…will be Trump.
It's going to be an interesting five months.