Wednesday, February 01, 2006


DT in New York Sun

Today's New York Sun carries an op-ed I wrote on Hillary Clinton's presidential prospects, which elaborates on a post I put up last week. Since you can't get access to the Sun website unless you are a subscriber, here is the full text of my piece.

How Hillary Can Win


The CNN/Gallup Poll released last week on Hillary Clinton’s presidential
prospects showed the former first lady is starting out essentially in last
place with much of the American electorate — 51% said they would not vote
for her under any circumstances.

But what this poll failed to illuminate, as have others on Senator Clinton,
is exactly why she is so unpopular with voters who are not part of the vast
right-wing conspiracy.

To try to get a handle on that question, I thought it would be an
informative exercise to ask non-insiders for their impressions.

So over the last few weeks, I conducted my own informal, unscientific,
overcaffeinated focus groups, avoiding the typical right-wing Hillary-haters
and speaking with Democrats and independents.

What I found is that Mrs. Clinton’s biggest hurdle to becoming a viable
presidential contender is not ideological, as much of the punditocracy
suggests, but personal.

It seems the prevailing perception that has taken hold is not Hillary the
wild-eyed liberal, but Hillary the ice queen. Indeed, the most common and
visceral complaint I heard is that she comes off as cold, calculating, and

These same conversations suggest that this perception problem is,
ironically, most acute with professional women, her supposed base.

Some of this appears to be residue from the Lewinsky scandal. I heard many
women criticize her for enabling her husband’s repeated infidelities and
staying with him after he dealt her a horrific public humiliation; their
sneaking suspicion is that she tolerated Bill’s sneaking around to further
her political ambitions.

Some of it just seems to be purely stylistic reaction. Many women say they
find it hard to connect with her because she rarely lets her emotions show
in public and thus seems like she’s hiding something.

Either way, this helps explain why just 22% of the women surveyed in the
CNN/Gallup poll indicated they would definitely vote for Mrs. Clinton for
president at this stage.

It also reveals the crux of Hillary’s challenge in becoming a winning
national candidate. It’s hard to see how a woman in general — and in
particular a woman with Mrs. Clinton’s political and personal baggage — can
get elected 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% of men said they would definitely
vote for her, while 60% said they would not vote for her in any

I suspect that this hurdle, while formidable, is not insurmountable. But it
won’t be by conventional political means.

Indeed, typical targeted efforts to rehab her image are doomed to fail.
These moves will be so transparent, and so thoroughly chewed over by the
media, that they more likely than not will just reinforce the unfair image
of Hillary as a calculating power-schemer instead of deflating it.

As proof of that point, just look at the backlash that has accompanied
Hillary’s so-called repositioning as a centrist. The reality is that in most
of these cases, she was just being consistent, not cynical. But as is often
case, the truth is irrelevant, and the result is that the perception of her
as calculator-in-chief has only deepened.

So how can Hillary break free of this damning trap? Not by trying to make
herself over, but by opening herself up — and showing off the same warm,
funny, and generous side that has won her many admirers on both sides of the
aisle in the Senate.

The reality is, as I learned from watching her up close on Capitol Hill,
Mrs. Clinton gets more likeable the more you know her. She used this to her
advantage in her highly successful listening tour in the 2000 campaign. And
since then, her persistent efforts to personally touch voters upstate has
been widely cited as her secret weapon in maintaining her high state
favorability numbers.

So if Hillary really wants to be president, probably the best thing she
could do would be to quit the Senate — which is a graveyard for presidential
ambitions — and take her real-people road show national. Unfortunately,
that’s not a realistic option at this point.

The next best thing would be to hit the ground running with this focused
outreach strategy when her re-election campaign ends in November — and build
her schedule in 2007 around it.

Specifically, she should start ramping up a series of town meetings in
targeted states to discuss the country’s future post-Bush — and not the
cynical contrivances that President Bush himself has staged, but totally
open sessions with no pre-screened questions.

This kind of forum can be risky, but I am afraid Mrs. Clinton can’t bust her
crippling caricatures and win the presidency if she is afraid to take

To supplement these larger town hall meetings, and connect more directly
with women, she should set up a series of house parties at the homes of
friendly female supporters in the suburbs, with a heavy dose of them in red

This would give her a chance to talk in a more intimate setting about the
historic nature of her run, how this will be a test not of her political
power but of theirs, and what a Hillary victory (or an embarrassing defeat)
could mean for gender equity going forward.

In these meetings and in all her interviews, Hillary should be open about
her motivations. She should acknowledge that 15 years of vilification has
taken its toll, and make clear that instead of running away from her image
problem, she’s going to confront the caricatures and puncture them.

The conventional-thinking consultants and operatives will be aghast. But I
bet average Americans will find her candor refreshing and — lo and behold —
real. Besides, it gives her a rare opportunity to show strength and
vulnerability in one fell swoop.

All things considered, it’s a crapshoot whether this strategy will
ultimately work, especially given where the Democratic electorate is right
now. After losing two straight national campaigns with candidates who
largely failed to connect personally with average people, primary voters may
just write Hillary off as unelectable and opt for a fresh, non-polarizing

But two things seem certain. Her watchword isn’t liberal, it’s likeable. And
Hillary won’t make history if she does not openly and compellingly tell
her story.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?