Voters love Hillary best when she says the least

Throughout Hillary Clinton’s political career, she has done much better when she has shut up.

Throughout Hillary Clinton’s political career, she has done much better when she has shut up.

After the “tea and cookies” comment in the 1992 campaign, she lapsed into relative silence and let her husband win the election. But when she took center stage trying to reform healthcare, she screwed it up.

There followed three years of relative silence during which she confined her impact to the feature pages of the papers, writing a book about education, journeying to China for a human-rights conference and taking well-photographed trips abroad.

During her Senate race, her best days were those of the “listening tour,” in which she let others tell her what were the problems of her newly adopted state of New York and she just listened and nodded her head. In the Senate, it was her absence of partisanship, rancor and ideology that won her plaudits from both sides of the aisle. The sounds, once again, of silence.

Her high marks in the Senate come not from activity but from civility and inactivity. She has captured the essence of what Gilbert and Sullivan identified as the secret of the House of Lords’ success: “They did nothing particular and did it very well.” And then, throughout the campaign of 2004, Hillary stepped aside and let Sen. John Kerry carry the ball, even accepting a minor speaking role at the national convention.

But toward the end of last year, she emerged with both guns blazing, attacking President Bush on Hurricane Katrina, race, poverty, tax cuts, homeland security, the Patriot Act, judicial nominations and, pardon the chutzpah, ethics! Even as her husband basked in the aura of the Bushes, senior and junior, Hillary was out there giving the president hell.

Gone has been the giggling, friendly demeanor, the toss of the head, the interview intimacy. Instead, she began pounding the podium, ratcheting up the rhetoric, appealing to the partisan base she has to capture to win the nomination.

The reason for her escalating rhetoric is obvious: She needs to be pro-war to cultivate a sufficiently tough image to run for president (commander in chief) but still must turn on the hard-core ideologues who dominate her party primaries. To do so, she has to be extremely partisan on everything else to compensate for her shortcomings in not opposing the war.

But the consequences are all too obvious in her poll numbers. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans say they would never vote for Hillary and her popularity comes in a distinct second among possible female candidates to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The more vocal she gets, the more her ratings drop.

Bill Clinton — the man whom Bush recently described as his “brother” — is capable of a wide range of rhetorical styles and does not need harshness to convey passion. A raise of his eyebrow often suffices. A nod of his head. A properly constructed glance. But the woman who, by deduction, is apparently the president’s sister-in-law is not as capable. Indeed, she has two rhetorical styles: coy and strident. Off and on. Soft and loud. 

And lately she has been running as though it is 2008 already, hitting Bush every day over everything. But the pace is wearing off the artificial veneer of civility she had managed to paint over her partisan fangs and leaving her image back in the dog days of Healthcare Hillary. Too soon, she is unveiling her true personality. She is getting overexposed. 

Of course, she’s got a tough problem. To accept a lower profile in a time of war and political heat would be to let others pass her by. She has mousetrapped herself into backing the war policy her party detests and must be visibly out there on all other issues to compensate.

But the more she raises the political pressure, the more she grates on America like nails on a blackboard. And we have three more years of this to look forward to.

Morris, a former political adviser to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and President Bill Clinton, is the author of Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race.