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Historic moment arrives for Hillary Clinton – and for US politics

Breaking barriers

In a politically polarized America, her quest for the presidency has brought strong support and opposition. But Hillary Clinton breaks a barrier in becoming the first woman presidential nominee of a major party.

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    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at an event at the Good Day Cafe in Vallejo, Calif., on June 5.
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By now, the historic nature of Hillary Clinton’s quest for the presidency has become so familiar as to be almost an afterthought.

But Mrs. Clinton’s achievement – clinching the Democratic nomination for president – is no less significant: She is poised to become the first woman in American history to lead a major political party’s presidential ticket.

Clinton has, to quote her concession speech eight years ago today at the end of the 2008 primary season, put another major crack in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” in American politics. On Monday night, the Associated Press announced she had secured enough delegates, including "superdelegates," to win the nomination. On Tuesday night, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Clinton will declare victory.

Six states hold primaries on Tuesday – California, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Even if Clinton loses the biggest prize, California, she is assured enough delegates to put her well beyond the 2,383 delegates needed for the nomination.

Clinton’s journey to this moment has been decades in the making. And it charts her course from idealistic college graduate to pragmatic political practitioner, schooled by her time as a highly involved first lady of Arkansas and then of the United States, followed by being a US senator, first-time presidential candidate, and secretary of State. On Tuesday, Clinton’s alma mater, Wellesley College, released the audio of her commencement address to her fellow class of 1969 graduates, revealing the passion of a driven young woman. 

“The challenge now,” young Hillary Rodham said, “is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”

If teleported to today, Ms. Rodham might well have been a Bernie Sanders supporter – like many idealistic Millennials. Though a Republican in high school, by her junior year in college, she was volunteering for the anti-war Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. And in 1972, she and her future husband, Bill Clinton, worked for the liberal George McGovern’s campaign in Texas.

It was her time in Arkansas, then-dominated by conservative Democrats, that showed Hillary Clinton a political middle way, which she and her husband took to Washington when he became president.

Today, “centrism” is out, as conservatives and liberals come to dominate their respective political parties. Though curiously, the November lineup of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton features neither a conservative nor a liberal. More aptly, it is a populist versus a pragmatist. And while Clinton played down her gender – and her history-making potential – the first time she ran for president, this time it is central to her appeal.

That fact is laden with irony, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“The irony is that you’ve got a woman running against the most alpha-male candidate we’ve ever seen,” says Ms. Walsh. “In some ways, she is part of the reason he and some of the people who support him may be feeling they want to ‘make America great again.’ "

The Trump slogan harks back to an earlier time when women (and minorities) held fewer positions of authority, Walsh says.

For Clinton, the irony of the progress women have made in virtually all spheres of life is that many young women aren’t especially motivated by the “first woman president” argument.

There have already been so many firsts – first female speaker of the House, first woman astronaut, women increasingly visible in corporate leadership, three female justices currently on the Supreme Court – that there seems to be a sense that a woman president isn’t so unattainable, and that sooner or later, a female US president is inevitable. Never mind that the US is 91st in the world for women serving in the national legislature, says Walsh.

Many young voters know little of Clinton’s background – her fight for health care reform as first lady in the 1990s, her years at the Children’s Defense Fund, her decision to stick with her husband despite his sexual indiscretions.

“I think many of the struggles she went through are not even relevant for young voters,” Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., told the Monitor in April. “So the idea that she 'stood by Bill Clinton,' the idea that she has been through the wringer with Republicans – all of those things – they just don’t have as much relevance to young people today.” 

In addition, some young voters’ impressions of Clinton center on her role as an establishment favorite, tainted by her connection to corporate money and a perpetual whiff of scandal.

But for many older Democratic women, Clinton’s ascension to the nomination represents a renewed hope, after her defeat eight years ago, that they could live to see the election of the first woman president. And for some, gender isn’t the most important factor.

“I support her because she’s bright, she’s measured, she exhibits extreme diplomacy in her approach on domestic and international issues,” says Janet Braun, a 50-something corporate lawyer in South Pasadena who is phone-banking for Clinton. “Her being a woman is a bonus. I’m sickened by how much misogyny is out there. But I think she is the best candidate regardless of gender.”

On Monday night, when the AP called Clinton the “presumptive nominee,” after confirming additional commitments to her from superdelegates, the former secretary of State resisted declaring victory. She will savor that moment tonight. But on the trail in California on the final day before the biggest state holds its primary, she could barely contain her glee. And she didn’t hide her potential to make even more history.

“My supporters are passionate, they are committed, they have voted for me in great numbers across the country for many reasons,” Clinton said. “But among the reasons is their belief that having a woman president would make a great statement – a historic statement – about what kind of country we are, what we stand for. It’s really emotional.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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