Thursday, January 18, 2007


DT in The New York Post

The New York Post asked me yesterday to write a short column advising Hillary Clinton how to respond to Barack Obama's entry into the 2008 presidential race. Below is the piece as it ran in today's paper. Some additional thoughts that got squeezed out in the editing process for space reasons follow.

January 18, 2007 -- BARACK OBAMA may prove in time to be the gravest threat to Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions, as many are predicting.

But right now, her biggest hurdle is not Obama, but Hillary herself - or, to be more specific, the public's perception of her.

One of the few things that unites Democrats is the common view of Hillary as cold and calculating.

And after choosing two dislikeable nominees to run against George W. Bush, Democrats seem to have little interest in rallying around another wrong-rubbing candidate.

This likeability gap could be fatal for Hillary, and there will be pressure on her to muddy "Ocharma" up before he can take off.

But if I were advising Clinton, I would tell her team to resist that temptation, and instead take these steps:

* Focus on reducing negative perceptions of you. Open up more personally. Let voters see the warm and engaging woman your friends and colleagues know you to be.

* Schedule town meetings in the early voting states with no pre-screened questions. Show your command of the issues and be the leader President Bush has not been - and many voters doubt Obama can be.

* Hold house parties at the homes of friendly female supporters. This would give you a chance to address women in an intimate setting about your run, and how this will be a test not of your political power but of theirs.

* Be candid - talk about how 15 years of vilification have taken their toll. The worst thing to do is stage a carefully scripted fake-over.

* Build on your biggest advantage - experience. Instead of attacking Obama frontally, give a series of foreign-policy speeches across the country that show you're the Democrat best qualified to keep America safe.

That's the matchup Hillary ultimately wants. And her best hope of getting there, and getting Obama on the defensive, is to first neutralize her likeability liability.
A few other points worth noting:

1) As I have been careful to say, the perception of Hillary Clinton as cold and calculating is grossly unfair, a crass caricature largely created by the Republicans' concerted effort to demonize her. The truth is, as I learned from watching her up close on Capitol Hill, Senator Clinton gets more likeable the more you know her. But there is just no getting around the fact that the cold and calculating caricature has sunk in wide and deep, and her team and her supporters ignore or gloss over it at their peril.

2) Hillary's most dangerous likeability liability is with women, which should be her strongest base. As I wrote in the New York Sun last year, 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 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. That is why I think it is so important for her to concentrate in the early part on the campaign on reaching out to this constituency -- looking at how the numbers add up, she simply can't win if big blocks of women remain ambivalent or hostile.

3) Hillary would be wise to hold some of the town hall meetings and women-focused house parties that I proposed in red states. I know this seems counterintuitive, since so much focus will be on courting Democrats in the early voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina). But one of Hillary's biggest challenges is convinving primary voters -- liberals and moderates alike -- that she is electable in the general. By showing in 2007 that she can play in Peoria -- and even better in Louisville and Baton Rouge, states her husband won in 1996 -- she can help dash those doubts and in turn enhance her chances in the primaries.

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