Clinton sharpens her message

Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is sharpening her message months ahead of a likely bid for the White House. 

After a rocky first few months back in the spotlight where she struggled to offer crisp sound bites, Clinton is now test-driving various campaign themes. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The former New York senator is signaling that this time around — unlike in 2008 — she will offer a concise and cohesive vision for the country.  

On Monday, she said during a Facebook question-and-answer session, “The next president should work to grow the economy, increase upward mobility, and decrease inequality.”

That statement taps into key Democratic rallying points that appeal to independents as well as the liberal base pining for a potential Elizabeth Warren candidacy. She hasn’t offered much policy details, but there’s plenty of time for that.

“We’ve reached a point in our life when we think you really shouldn’t run for office if you don’t have a clear idea of what you can do and a unique contribution you can make and you can outline that,” former President Bill Clinton told CNN this week. “Now that the book [tour] is done, she wants time to think about that and work through it. I think so much of politics is background noise, and we don’t need the background noise anymore.”

But as necessary as it is for the former first lady to come up with a simple message — the lack of which, Clinton allies say, was perhaps a fatal flaw of her 2008 campaign — it’s also a difficult task. In essence, Clinton needs her own “hope and change” theme.

Clinton allies say one is emerging. 

“Hillary Clinton has made it clear that should she run for president, her forward-thinking agenda will be reflective of her life’s work — leveling the playing field and giving everyone a chance to succeed,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super-PAC. “She said very clearly, just this month, that the current disparity must be fixed so that hard work is rewarded and our system works for everyone.” 

The current themes are emerging after Clinton and her inner circle pieced together the missteps of the 2008 bid. A Democratic strategist said one of the biggest reasons Clinton lost to President Obama is because she didn’t demonstrate that she had a clear path for moving the country forward. Clinton, the operative said, acted as though she was the inevitable nominee.

“At every campaign stop you heard Obama say, ‘I want to see the country do x, y and z and that’s why I’m running for president of the United States of America.’ She failed to do that. She relied too much on the sentiment that she was the best person for the job without really explaining why.”

In her book, Hard Choices, the former secretary of State wrote that potential presidential candidates should consider it their responsibility to “renew the American Dream.”

“Having lost in 2008, I know that nothing is guaranteed, nothing can be taken for granted. I also know that the most important questions anyone considering running must answer are not ‘Do you want to be President?’ or ‘Can you win?’” she wrote. “They are, ‘What’s your vision for America?’ And ‘Can you lead us there?’”

Clinton announced her 2008 campaign by proclaiming, “I’m in, and I’m in to win.”

It’s a challenge for Clinton to craft a fresh vision because her campaign will operate in the shadow of her husband’s presidency. She will be asked to answer what went well and what went wrong over those eight years. 

Speaking to talk show host Charlie Rose on PBS last week, Clinton offered the outlines of a potential campaign rationale.

“You have to run a very specific campaign that talks about the changes you want to make in order to tackle growth, which is the hand maiden of inequality,” she said.

She offered her husband’s economic policies as an example of what would work to reduce inequality, and implicitly knocked Republican economic theories, a hint at where her own platform would end up.

“We still have people in positions of political leadership who argue that trickle-down economics, supply side economics work. There is no convincing evidence of that,” she said. “So what you need if you’re going to run for president or run for any important position is to be absolutely clear about what you will do and to make the case relentlessly about that.”

A former senior aide to Clinton on her 2008 campaign dismissed concerns that she would be weighed down by her husband’s record, arguing she can easily distance herself from other policies by simply saying, “We live in a different world.” 

The ex-staffer said Clinton’s vision will also look “completely different” from 2008 because “we’re not in the same place.”

“We were at war and voter polling indicated that people were still legitimately concerned with terrorism. That’s reality one. And reality two is that we won’t have someone like Mark Penn who came in and messed everything up with bad messaging,” the aide added. Penn was a senior strategist for Clinton’s 2008 campaign.

Skepticism from the progressive base is a 2008 issue that Clinton will have to address head on. Calls from the left for Warren (D) to run in 2016 have grown ever louder as the freshman senator from Massachusetts has been hitting the trail for Democratic candidates this cycle and revving up the base with fiery, populist rhetoric.

Clinton faces the challenge, said Mike Lux, a former Clinton White House aide, of deciding “strategically, politically, policy wise, how much distance to try to create between her and Wall Street,” which has traditionally been a strong backer of the Clintons.

“I think good politicians — and I think Hillary is a good politician — are good at threading needles, and I think there’s probably a way to do it. But the danger when you’re trying to thread a needle is that you poke both sides, because you try to play it both ways,” Lux said.

Lux added she might ultimately have to apologize for supporting some policies, such as the deregulation of the banks that contributed to the financial crisis, that have given progressives pause.

But a former Hillary Clinton aide said if she runs, she would make a credible case on reducing inequality.

“The totality of her record is very much about equality and fairness,” the ex-staffer said.

A former Obama 2008 campaign aide said Clinton would pummel Warren, who has repeatedly said she’s not running.

“Hillary has more than redeemed herself with many through her services as secretary of State,” the former Obama campaign aide said. “Her leadership skills as an executive are hardly in dispute now.”

The ex-Obama staffer added, “Clinton has done so much more to co-opt the base groups in the past eight years. Yes, Warren will be the left-of-center darling, but I think she’s going to be outgunned by every metric. 

“I also think that the left-wing base have grown up a little,” the former Obama aide continued. “They realize that the shiny new object can only do so much in a polarized, gridlocked capital.”