An FBI investigation, rumors of health issues, and widespread unpopularity within her own party have each been hurdles in Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
If the former first lady is successful in her bid to become the first female president, she will likely continue to face similar obstacles — including one historical aspect of her candidacy that few pundits have mentioned.
While some of Clinton’s perceived weaknesses as a candidate have arguably been self-inflicted wounds, author and Grand Valley State University professor Don Zinman pointed out her status as a potential “heir apparent” president as a less obvious issue to consider.
In his recent book, Zinman uses the term to describe a president elected after two terms of a successor from the same party, going on to explain the pitfalls faced by the five commanders in chief who fit that bill.
Historically, these presidents — the last being Republican George H.W. Bush — have been blamed for the failures of their predecessors while not being fully acknowledged for their contributions. The same, he told Western Journalism, would probably be true for Clinton.
“She will likely have at least one chamber of Congress controlled by Republicans,” Zinman said, noting that even if Democrats win control of the Senate in November, the victory would assuredly not provide the party with a filibuster-proof majority.
“Republicans would likely grow stronger in the 2018 midterm elections,” he continued.
Though Clinton has shown signs she is willing to compromise, Zinman noted, “such overtures are likely to be met with derision and dismissal by Republicans, and accusations of spinelessness by liberals and Democrats.”
Asked whether Bernie Sanders, an Independent Vermont senator challenging Clinton in the Democratic primary, would face the same perception problems, the associate political science professor offered a distinction between the two candidates.
“As a card-carrying socialist who has never been a Democrat,” he said, “Sanders could more credibly claim to represent a break with the Obama Administration. Sanders is speaking of ‘revolution,’ while Clinton is speaking of continuity, finishing Obama’s unfinished business and tweaks of some policies.”
Even though most previous “heir apparent” presidents first served as vice president, Zinman noted that Clinton would not benefit from the fact she was only a first-term Cabinet member.
“Clinton was a Cabinet secretary,” he said, “involved in major foreign policy decisions of the administration. Similarly, W.H. Taft was a Cabinet secretary under Teddy Roosevelt, and no one doubted in 1908 that Taft was Roosevelt’s heir apparent.”
The political science expert offered some advice for Clinton, should she hope to shed some of the trappings of her position.
“Don’t try to out-Obama Obama,” he said, adding that the former secretary of state “should take her case to the people, but do so in a new and different way than her predecessor, and in ways that play to her talents and attributes.”
None of the previous “heir apparent” presidents have completely escaped the issues associated with the title, Zinman said, though Harry Truman fared better than the rest.
“He became president upon FDR’s death,” he explained, “and had three years to establish an incumbency advantage before standing for election on his own in 1948.”
Additionally, Zinman noted the end of World War II “afforded Truman a rare opportunity to effect major changes in foreign policy.”
The inclusion of a “flawed opponent” in Republican Thomas Dewey, he concluded, gave Truman an added boost.
“Truman, however, let office unpopular,” Zinman said, “and did not receive credit for his achievements until long after his presidency was over. That is a common pattern with presidents in the heir apparent position.”