Hillary Clinton came into the Democratic National Convention with a severe likability deficit. Her saving grace has been Donald Trump’s equally large, if not larger, unfavorability. Democrats are betting that the more voters get to know about both, the more they will like her and the less they will like Trump.
On Tuesday night, a parade of Democrats capped off by former president Bill Clinton tried to soften her image. Trump’s kids were hard-pressed to come up with any specifics evidencing his alleged positive qualities. By contrast, we were showered with minutiae about Hillary Clinton’s life.
We heard from Bill about everything from their first encounter in law school to getting Chelsea settled in at Stanford (do we think Trump ever bothered to see his kids off to college?) to her efforts on behalf of children. When he moved from the personal to the political, he insisted, with an awkward phrase, that she was the “best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life.”
More convincingly, he made the case with accounts of her efforts since she was fresh out of law school to work on issues as diverse as preschool for Arkansas kids to negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza. From this he concluded:
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“If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many people’s lives are better, you know it’s hard and some people think it’s boring. Speeches like this are fun. Actually doing the work is hard. So people say, well, we need to change. She’s been around a long time, she sure has, and she’s sure been worth every single year she’s put into making people’s lives better.”
It was a compelling speech, but does this amount to the “change” people are looking for in a “change election”? Sure, Hillary Clinton may be dogged, energetic, detail-oriented, passionate and even kinder than we thought (”calls you when you’re sick, when your kid’s in trouble or when there’s a death in the family”). A moving video (if there is one thing Democrats are good at, it is making emotion-laden political videos) showing her spending two hours with mothers of gun victims certainly reveals a level of sincerity we don’t often see from her. But, sorry, if you are looking for revolutionary, dramatic, pull-it-up-by-the-roots change, she is not going to deliver it. That is not a problem in my book, but it may be in the minds of voters.
Hillary Clinton is a liberal incrementalist, even (especially) in Bill’s accounting. As he argued, “You could drop her into any trouble spot, pick one, come back in a month and somehow, some way she will have made it better. That is just who she is. There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you.”
Arguing that Republicans had to create a “cartoon” of her in order to win the presidency, Bill Clinton declared, “Cartoons are two-dimensional; they’re easy to absorb. Life in the real world is complicated, and real change is hard. And a lot of people even think it’s boring.” Translation: You don’t snap your fingers and with “great management” change the whole political system, so choose someone instead who knows how to improve it.
It’s not clear that this is what voters have in mind this election, but for those of us who do not buy pie-in-the-sky promises with unspecified means of fulfilling them and who do not think the problem is the lack of a strongman who “alone will fix it,” that’s a decent alternative, provided that Hillary Clinton can perform. Meanwhile, since the GOP went so far over the top (“Lock her up”) and dwelt incessantly on her emails and Libya, calling her a murderer, they missed the opportunity to make the far stronger case against her — on competence.
So Hillary Clinton is trying to fit a round peg (her career) into a square hole (voters’ demand for radical change) when she could present herself as a moderate capable of improving government. Republicans are making ineffective arguments (few voters think that she personally killed victims invoked at the Republican National Convention) when they had really strong ones that would undermine her image of competence (e.g., she bollixed up Hillarycare, was blindsided by the spread of al-Qaida, had no coherent approach to the Arab Spring).
It’s almost as if neither candidate knows how to win.