Friday, July 10, 2015

What Has Hillary Clinton Learned?

During Hillary Clinton's "official launch speech," on June 13, when she talked about her family history her tone of voice was warm and well modulated. She sounded genuine. That day at Roosevelt Island, when Clinton talked about politics, issues and proposals, her tone of voice was colder. It had a forced edge.

Before large crowds, when Clinton amps up her delivery, to drive home at point, occasionally it can sound like she's picked over and practiced her spiel so much she sounds disconnected with the meaning of the sentences. Like any weakness, this one provides the chance for a rival to provide contrast.

Bernie Sanders has been doing exactly that with how he's been connecting with the mobs his speeches have been drawing. His amiable gruffness has looked almost like charisma. Sanders appears to be the candidate whose longtime liberal message has found its time to be a good fit. Authenticity is playing as his strong suit.

While speaking effectively before big crowds isn't essential to the job of being president, it's obviously an asset on the stump. Footage from such appearances plays well in sound bite news reports. It's useful in political ads. It helps with fundraising. Yet some of Clinton's handlers are probably advising her to avoid scheduling large events, because in the past she's been noticeably more effective – more likeable – in town hall confabs, round table discussions and one-on-one interviews.

During a 2008 debate in New Hampshire, Clinton's struggle to be likeable was treated as an issue. After the moderator brought the subject up, she pretended her feelings had been bruised, as she joked to stiff-arm the question. She handled it well, but then Barack Obama owned the moment with his deft sarcasm, "You're likeable enough, Hillary."

So far Sanders, the grizzled underdog, has been easy to like. Still, to be fair, after all of her years in the spotlight, we can chalk some of Clinton's perceived likeability deficit up to Hillary-fatigue. Old Bernie is still a fresh face to most Americans.

The content of Clinton's launch speech unpacked her views about how government can help make America's future brighter. It also showcased her considerable experience in public life: First Lady (Arkansas and the USA); U.S. Senator (New York); Secretary of State. That's the other side of the coin from Hillary-fatigue. With her lengthy resume, saying Clinton has been around the block is an understatement. That resume also prompts a key question – what did Hillary Rodham Clinton learn from the journey?

Now that Clinton admits her 2002 vote to support the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, what has she learned about how to avoid being drawn into bad wars? What has she learned about the need to oversee Wall Street's mode of operation to prevent more of its excesses? Has her experience taught her anything about how to lead recalcitrant lawmakers out of perpetual gridlock?

Meanwhile, Sanders has been steadily chipping away at the carved-in-stone myth that has the American electorate being forever locked into a “center-right” position, ideologically. It became true during Ronald Reagan's years, maybe it stayed that way through Bill Clinton's presidency. Then came George W. Bush with his disastrous war in Iraq. Not to mention the American economy collapsing into a monster recession.

It's entirely possible the inbred analysts inside the beltway have been overlooking a steady movement of the ideological middle spot of the American electorate since Obama has been in office. Or maybe the aftermath of a series of mistakes by Republicans has suddenly coalesced over the last year.

Either way, it's important to note that young voters haven't been steeped in decades of ideologically-driven propaganda. So they aren't necessarily looking at politics through their parents' prism.

Watching Republicans in Congress threatening to scuttle the federal government's ability to pay its debts – in the middle of a routine budget squabble – some young Daily Show fans must have considered that strategy to be less than fiscally responsible, sort of crazy, but not funny. Young Virginians, who weren't taught in school to believe a pickled version of history, inspired by Jim Crow Era thinking, don't quite understand why some Republicans are still defending a flag that symbolizes hate to many of their fellow Virginians.

Moreover, nationally, the GOP's youth problem will only be getting worse in the future, as most young voters don't see much good in ranting against same-sex marriages. The extremism and tone-deafness of the hardcore right-wingers in the Republican Party may have minted more new Democrats in the last few years than anything Democrats have done. Sanders seems to be attracting a lot of new Democrats.

Looking ahead, Clinton would probably rather talk about domestic policies designed to help the middle class and the cultural significance of electing a woman to be president. But events could intervene. After the last two presidential campaigns were focused on spending and the economy, scary foreign policy issues could shoulder economic concerns aside.

During the early primaries next year, if a new war seems to be looming and Hillary Clinton is still being peppered with questions about her vote to support invading Iraq, her "inevitability" could start shriveling once again. Which could then make peace-loving Bernie Sanders look all the more likeable.

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