Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Extreme Makeover, Hillary Edition

It's not exactly Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, but in Wednesday morning's New York Sun you will this Gerstein quoted extensively by my no-relation reporter friend Josh Gerstein about the agita that Hillary Clinton's presidential positioning is causing the Democratic insider club. You can find the full article here.

One point I would like to amplify on:

As I allude to in the article, I continue to believe that Hillary's biggest hurdle to becoming a viable presidential contender is not ideological but personal. The Republicans have done a pretty good job of caricaturing her as a radical Sixties feminazi, but it's not grounded in fact and I am confident that Hillary will gradually debunk that silly myth and convince reasonable people that she's no wild-eyed liberal. The far more damaging caricature -- and far more difficult to shake -- is Hillary as ice queen. This perception, which I will say upfront is unfair, nevertheless appears to have seeped deeply into the public consciousness. So much so that in my conversations with non-insiders about Hillary, it seems the most common and visceral complaint I hear is that she comes off as cold, calculating, and fake.

These same conversations suggest that this problem is, ironically, most acute with women, her supposed base. Some of this appears to be residue from the Lewinsky scandal; I have heard many women criticize her for enabling her husband's repeated infidelities and staying with him after he dealt her a horrific humiliation, then cynically ascribe her stand-by-her-man behavior to her political ambitions. Some of it just seems to purely stylistic reactions; many women suggest they find it hard to connect with her because she rarely lets her emotions show in public and thus betrays no vulnerability. Which is to say, in less analytical terms, they just don't like her. That is reflected in the CNN/Gallup poll that came out this week, showing that just 22 percent of women would definitely vote for Hillary for President at this stage.

To me, this represents the crux of Hillary's challenge in becoming a competitive national candidate. I just don't see how a woman in general -- and in particular a woman with Hillary's ideological and personal baggage -- can move into electable territory with a major chunk of her natural support stronghold strongly predisposed against her. There's no way she can make it up with African-American voters -- there's just not enough of them. And she's certainly not going to make up for it with the white men who are already fleeing the Democratic Party in droves. In fact, in the CNN/Gallup poll, only 11 percent of men said they would definitely vote for her, while 60 percent said they would not vote for her in any circumstance.

I suspect that this hurdle, while formidable, is not insurmountable. But not by conventional political means. Indeed, I think typical targeted efforts to rehab her image -- like her husband's courting of the youth vote through apearances on MTV and Arsenio Hall -- will not only be ineffective, but ultimately hurtful. These moves will be so transparent, and so thoroughly chewed over by the media, that they more likley than not will just reinforce Hillary's image as a calculating power-schemer instead of deflating it.

If I were writing the Hillary edition of Extreme Makeover, I would have her take extreme measures. First and foremost, I would have told her to quit the Senate. As recent history has shown it's a graveyard for presidential ambitions, and with her mega-celebrity, she simply does not need the platform to get attention the way others often do.

Once liberated, I would have her criss-cross the country and conduct as many open town-meetings as possible to discuss the country's future post-Bush -- and not the phony contrivances that Bush himself has staged, but totally open sessions with no pre-screened questions. It's risky, but I am afraid Hillary can't bust these crippling caricatures and win the presidency if she is afraid to take chances and plays it straight.

To supplement these larger town hall meetings, and connect more directly with women, I would consider setting up a series of house parties at the homes of friendly female supporters in the suburbs, with a heavy dose of them in red states. This would give Hillary a chance to talk about the historic nature of her run, how this will be a test of not of her political power but theirs, and what a Hillary victory (or an embarrassing defeat) could mean for gender equity going forward.

At these meetings, and in all her public and press appearances, I would advise Hillary to be far more open herself -- to focus on letting down her guard and letting her humanity come through. She's a funny, warm, personable woman to people who know her, and the rest of the country needs to know that her too. Show the normal range of emotions -- tell some corny jokes, laugh at yourself, even get annoyed or exasperated where appropriate.

And perhaps most risky of all, I would have Hillary be open about her motivations for these efforts. She should acknowledge she has an image problem, and that instead of running away from it, she's going to confront the caricature and puncture it. The conventional-thinking consultants and operatives will be aghast. But I bet average Americans will find her candor refreshing and -- lo and behold -- real.

Moreover, I think precisely because it's such a man-bites-dog story, this straight-shooting course could go a long way towards opening the doubters' minds towards Hillary -- at least the non-haters in the middle -- and reconsider their surface image of her. Besides, it gives her a rare opportunity to show strength and vulnerability in one fell swoop. Talk about a two-for-one deal!

Could this ever happen? I doubt it. Hillary is already committed to run for reelection, which effectively limits the time she could devote to this kind of campaign and thus the punch it could deliver. And it's probably too scary and ambitious to ponder anyway. But there's no reason she can't adopt elements of this strategy and still derive a good part of the benefit. The real question is whether the people around her would let her. Stay tuned.

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