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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Is Hillary Clinton getting a bad rap?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on her

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks on her campaign bus after visiting Imani Temple Ministries in Cleveland, Sunday, July 31, 2016. Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine are on a three day bus tour through the rust belt. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

This is not how our foremothers who fought for the vote imagined the moment when a woman would face the nation as the likely next president of the United States.

Hillary Clinton’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention last week was a historic milestone; but, in many ways, the celebration felt hollow.

Clinton enters the race as the least popular major-party nominee in recent history, save one: Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. In the primaries, she had a difficult time beating an elderly socialist who, adding insult to injury, had young female voters flocking to his side; moreover, she still has to battle suspicions that she won with a stacked deck.

She now faces a rival widely seen as a cross between Bozo the Clown and Darth Vader — and she’s still only about five points ahead, or in a virtual tie if you add two minor-party candidates to the poll options. Many who plan to vote for her are motivated primarily by the desire to keep Trump out of the White House.

If she prevails — as I hope she does — her win will come with an asterisk: “*Not-Trump.”

Many believe Clinton’s woes largely stem from her gender and that she is being held to higher standards than men.

There is little doubt that some anti-Clinton rhetoric has had a misogynist streak; right-wing radio king Rush Limbaugh routinely portrays her as a castrating matriarch. But it’s much harder to either prove or disprove claims of subtle sexism.

For every study that shows still-extant prejudice against female ambition and leadership, there is another showing that women leaders are perceived more positively than men and that gender is now an asset more than a liability for women in politics.

Are people being sexist when they complain that Clinton comes across as lacking in human emotion and warmth? Similar criticisms have been directed at plenty of male pols, from Michael Dukakis to Al Gore. Is it sexist when people criticize Clinton’s speaking style and even her voice? Look up some of the things said in the past year about Sen. Ted Cruz.

Personality and charm, or lack thereof, are part of being a politician; to declare them off-limits in Clinton’s case is not to ask for equal treatment but to demand that women be shielded from the roughness of normal political fighting.

Some of Clinton’s problems are self-inflicted. She was badly hurt by the sharp FBI rebuke over her private email server as secretary of state, which very likely put classified data at risk. Even many people who plan to vote for her agree that the decision not to prosecute her was favoritism and that her behavior showed recklessness and arrogance.

But Clinton also has been the target, like many other politicians left and right (including Bill Clinton during his presidential term), of out-of-control political demonization.

Her handling of the Benghazi embassy attack qualifies as spin to avoid embarrassment for the Obama administration; it doesn’t qualify as murder. In her domestic politics, she is certainly a proponent of activist government, much more interventionist than I would prefer. But she is not out to smother entrepreneurship and make everyone’s children wards of the state.

Clinton is the nominee of a Democratic Party that has unquestionably moved left, partly as a result of the Sen. Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Yet she also made an effort to reach out to the center, and even to conservatives — from supporters of the police to “responsible gun owners” — in her acceptance speech.

Could a President Hillary Clinton usher in a revival of responsible liberalism in America? I won’t hold my breath. But, asterisk and all, she could pleasantly surprise us.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.