Monday, January 07, 2008

Building a Better Hillary

The Dieting Perspective. After my sophomore year in college, I lost 35 pounds without really intending to. Having bulked up to 190 while shot-putting on my college track team, I quickly dropped the weight after I started working as a carpenter's assistant in Texas.

But it's different now that I'm 53. Instead of food just being "there," I find that I use it as a form of comfort to relieve stress and as a kind of trigger to help me focus on my work. The more I eat, the better I'm focused and the more I get done. As a result, losing weight is frustrating because a lot of reasons besides hunger. I'm unfocused and unproductive as well. Exercise makes the situation worse. I have two disks in my back that have ruptured but didn't need surgery. Thank you, high school football, for those disc problems. As soon as I start even the most minor workouts, the discs become unstable and painful.

None of this means that I won't move forward with dieting and exercise, but it makes the whole enterprise more difficult and problematic.

The Obama Dieting Analogy. In certain ways, Barack Obama is campaigning as though issues could be handled in the thoughtless way I lost weight as a 20 year old. He seems to think that enacting health care reform, bringing the federal budget back into balance, and making judicial appointments is not going to involve a lot of painful conflict. Here's Obama responding to Hillary Clinton's criticism of him raising "false hopes" by saying that she was "depressing."
"Sen. Clinton saying, 'don’t feed the American people false hopes. Get a reality check.' You know? I mean, you can picture JFK saying, 'We can’t go to the moon.
It’s a false hope. Let’s get a reality check.' It’s not, sort of, I think what our tradition has been," he said.
"Going to the moon" was relatively easy because there was a national consensus behind getting it accomplished. But going to the moon was one of the few consensus projects of the sixties and right now there's little consensus about anything. Most Americans support universal health insurance, better schools, withdrawal from Iraq, abortion rights, and general government competence. However, this country also has a powerful right-wing that is dedicated to taking the country back to the Victorian era. That's why accomplishing what people want is going to be as painful and frustrating as dieting is for a fifty-something guy like me.

Building a Better Hillary. Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for the hard slog of getting through the post-Bush era. She's smart, determined, has a comprehensive knowledge of American government, and knows how to play hardball with the right. However, she's falling behind Obama and she had a particularly bad today, tearing up at one question and answer session and trying to scare people about terrorism at another. In many ways, Hillary is beginning to drift into the "tunnel of unlove" (a line from either Joe Biden or Bob Kerrey) that losing presidential candidates have to endure. Perhaps she's already toast. I don't know. But if Hillary is going to recover between now and Feb. 5, she needs to do a better job of engaging America's culture of compulsory optimism and talking critically about Barack Obama.

Here's some suggestions:

1. Be the Happy Warrior. Hillary has the "warrior" part down. Voters view her as competent, tough, and willing to fight the right-wing. But Hillary does not project enough joy to ward off the accusations that she's "joyless." Not that projecting joy in public settings or through a tv camera is that easy. It takes an underappreciated talent for politicians to project optimism and energy in public. But Hillary needs to keep working on projecting love for the battle, an eagerness to reach out to people, and faith in herself as a leader. People will appreciate these qualities more when she's working from behind than when she was the presumed nominee.

2. An Embodiment of Progress and Opportunity. Obviously, Hillary talks about being the first woman contender for the presidency. But I think she could do more to emphasize that her story is one of rising from modest middle-class roots to political prominence as an indication of how far people can come in America. It's hokie and it opens her up to charges of riding on Bill's coattails, but it's also a way to frame herself as a candidate who can continue America's progress during a difficult period. This is the kind of statement that I would like to see Hillary avoid.
"You know, I have so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said, her voice breaking a bit . . . "This is very personal for me, it's not just political, it's [that] I see what's happening, we have to reverse it," she said emotionally, adding that some "just put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds.
To be honest, I view the next administration as being primarily a struggle to keep from falling even farther behind than we've already fallen after eight years of Bush. Therefore, there's a way in which I agree with Hillary here. But Hillary should still be framing what she does in terms of progress. Nobody in the U. S. or anyplace else likes to hear fear or pessimism from a politician running for office. Instead, Hillary should be posing her candidacy in terms of an opportunity to resume progress. Certainly, that's what she'd be trying to do anyway.

3. Put Meat on Her Critique of Obama's Naive Optimism. One thing I've never liked about Hillary's campaign is that she poses her "experience" and Obama's "inexperience" in such an abstract manner. She needs to be able to say what her experience is. For example, she could talk about health care. Her "experience" is that she set forward a good (if flawed) plan but that it was defeated by $100 million in attack ads, scorched earth tactics by the Republicans, and weak and uncertain Congressional Democrats. Since then, she's worked on health care issues with people like Newt Gingrich and is much better prepared for the $500 million plus that that the health insurance industry is going to spend opposing the next legislation.

Another issue she could bring up is race. Obama's rhetoric gestures toward transcending race (so loved by the right) are hopelessly naive. In fact, the right wing is circling him with racial innuendo about being a "secret Muslim," his "black nationalist minister," his "aggressive wife," and the like. Hillary might point out that she is much more realistic about the dangers posed by right-wing smear tactics and that she and her team are far better prepared to deal with those tactics as president.

4. Push the Obama-Bush Analogy. Slate has a mention of Hillary making a comparison between Obama and George Bush today.
"I think it's good to have a likable president and if I remember a lot of people said they voted for George Bush because they wanted to have a beer with him. Maybe they should have left it at that."

She should go further with this. Much of what has been so disastrous about the Bush administration is that the right-wing got to live out it's "dreams" of invading and occupying Iraq with a ridiculously small force and projected themselves as being out in six months. Obama's "hope" is just as unlikely to be realized because he's no more prepared to deal with determined opposition to his proposals than George Bush was prepared to deal with a determined insurgency in Iraq.

The core of Hillary Clinton's argument against Barack Obama is that she is better prepared to deal with the realities that the next president will confront. But she needs to figure out a better way to formulate her mix of realism and optimism.

4 comments:

Oprichnina said...

As an undecided voter, I continue to watch the race between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama with tremendous interest. In a race in which the buzzword is "change," Senator Obama has managed to win the hearts of voters by embodying the very spirit of change: Obama's spoken words are the material of which Hope, Progress, and Optimism are made. As another poster said earlier, "Obama is the progressive future." Americans feed on optimism and romanticism and Obama meets this need: he has been compared favorably to Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and aligned himself with President John Kennedy. Obama is articulate, intelligent, and charismatic. Better yet, he is male, and his rhetoric is palatable to whites suspicious of a Black man in the White House. Does Hillary have a chance? Opposing campaigns whisper, the media alledges, and blogs proclaim that Hillary is "toast."

I disagree. First, how much of the current hype is artificial, a product of his suprising victory in Iowa, and his current media darling status? Obama needed these early states much more than Hillary. Early wins for Hillary would have revealed the inevitable nature of her nomination, while early losses would have finished him. Rather than a strong threat, and a beacon of hope, Obama would have been cast as, and percieved as, a "flash in the pan," all style and no substance. Obama needed a win to validate his campaign. A surge in the polls, increased positive media exposure, and an expanded opportunity to sell his message are to be expected after such a performance. However, it is highly likely that he will come back to the pack, as the media and opposing campaigns more closely scrutinize him in the coming weeks probing for and revealing weaknesses. The Republicans are well aware of his potential, and fear him even more than Hillary because of his broad appeal. Obviously the right will ramp-up their hate machine and point it squarely at him. How will his campaign handle being the target? How will it handle being the front runner? Any potential mistake could have tremendous consequences. At last check, Hillary still maintains advantages over Obama in available resources. Hillary has access to more money and access to a network of party faithful loyal to Bill. Granted it comes at a cost, but it still provides an advantage within the party structure. Finally, she has the right kind of campaign experience, having been heavily involved in Bill's campaigns.

I agree with you assessment of Clinton's chief critique of Obama:
"The core of Hillary Clinton's argument agains Barack Obama is that she is better prepared to deal with the realities that the next president will confront. But she needs to figure out a better way to formulate her mix of realism and optimism." However, I disagree with your objective: building a better Hillary. Hillary is who she is. Rather than build a better Hillary, she needs to embrace herself as she is.

1. Be the Happy Warrior.
To me this just does not work. The public believes it knows who she is. As I argued previously, there are many adjectives the public uses to describe Hillary, and happy is not on that list. Happy is also somthing I think she would have difficulty pulling off on a regular basis and making it appear to be natural. She does not exude the natural optimism, charisma, or charm that Obama possesses, nor does she have the ability to humanize the impulse to "reach out to people" in a way that could compare with Obama. Simply put, people believe that Obama believes in his heart what he says. Hillary would simply appear too calculating to effectively be a "happy warrior." Hillary should make every effort to demonstrate her warrior spirit, demonstrate her toughness, her will. She should do this by attacking; however, going negative on Obama is doomed to failure.

Instead she should vigorously attack the Republicans, as defenders of a dangerous, destructive status quo, while extending the same concilliatory gestures to Obama that he intends to extend to everyone. She needs to emphasize that she is more than willing to work with Senator Obama, or anyone interested in change, while emphasizing Republican responsibility for the nation's current problems. She should paint them as unwilling to compromise, and herself as the only Democratic candidate capable of taking them on and winning.

2. An Embodiment of Progress and Opportunity
Absolutely, this should be an opportunity to present a "herstory" which will serve as a valuable counterpoint to her "warrior" message. As you argued, this is her opportunity to emphasize her middle-class roots and forge a connection with the very people she intends to defend. Since this is a chance to reveal, and "write" her own history, she should seek to stake out and claim her story, her hardships, her work.

I stated earlier that the public has decided that they "know" Hillary. Focusing her campaign on changing this perception would be wasteful. However, continuing to develop the methods employed in Iowa might be fruitful later: having lifelong friends relate anecdotes mixed with occasional candid moments when she lightens up. The result is that she might appear human, someone worthy of a second glance and some empathy. Making it a focal point of the campaign is too obvious, but brief glimpses of her humanity (like the sense of humor she demonstrated at Obama's expense in the New Hampshire debate) might get voters to rethink their opinions more readily than being presented with an image that they believe is entirely false.

3.Put Meat on Her Critique of Obama's Naive Optimism
I had this in mind in my previous response, but you have articulated it much better than I did. I think she needs to do this in tandem with her accepting and accentuating her "warrior" nature. Again she does not have to directly attack Obama but maintain that his belief that he can work with the right is extremely naive, even fantasy, and that she is the only candidate capbable of handling the reality of the situation.

4.Push the Obama-Bush Analogy
I understand your reasoning: Obama's Naive Optimism that he can transcend partisan politics, race, class etc. are analagous to Bush because neither are (were) in Bush's case "prepared to deal with determined opposition." I think that it is too much of a stretch to convince the voters that Obama and Bush are similar beyond their likeablility.

Ric Caric said...

Of course, she might argue that naivete takes us backward.

Anonymous said...

Stick a fork in her. She's done.

Oprichnina said...

She could argue that the naivete takes us backward, but it is doubtful that the argument would even make an impression, nor would it significantly change the average voter's perception of Obama. We want to believe in Obama's soaring rhetoric, and Hillary's reality checks are as Obama said "depressing."

I am curious why Anonymous argues that Hillary is finished. Certainly Obama looks much stronger than previously believed, but I continue to think that this will be a long race.