Presidential races

Clinton searches for theme

At Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, staffers are invited to complete a phrase that is written on a wall: “Hillary for …”

Beside it, staffers have plastered dozens of sticky notes with various words and phrases.

{mosads}While the wall could be seen as a freewheeling experiment in the manner of a tech startup, it could also be regarded as symptomatic of a nagging problem for Clinton in the 2016 race: namely, the difficulty she has had in explaining why she’s running for president.

“The wall of stickies makes me nervous, because she should be for one vision for America and then maybe she achieves that vision with a bunch of policies,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “I’m probably for most of the things on the stickies, but voters will have a tough time digesting a campaign with about a hundred policies.” 

David Axelrod, one of the masterminds of President Obama’s 2008 victory, has persistently warned that Clinton needs to provide a clear rationale for why she’s seeking the White House.

“ ‘Hillary: Live with it’ is no rallying cry!” Axelrod tweeted last month while bemoaning that the Clinton camp was running a “grinding, tactical race.”

Last December, Axelrod had warned that Clinton needed to show she was “running for a purpose and not just for a promotion.” He has also said, “You have to stand for something, you have to fight for something, and people need to know what that is.”

While Clinton loyalists might complain that Axelrod’s frequent barbs reflect the bad blood generated during the 2008 race, others in the Democratic Party share his concerns.

“Nothing about the campaign reads as fresh and new, but rather as cautious, risk-averse and private,” one Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the Clinton campaign.

Independent observers, too, suggest that the former secretary of State has been slow to offer a summation of her reasons for seeking the presidency, beyond personal ambition.

Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College at the City University of New York, said Clinton could end up getting into a tangle similar to the one that famously ensnared Edward Kennedy. Asked in a 1980 TV interview, “Why do you want to be president?” Kennedy gave a vague, meandering answer that was perceived as sapping his momentum.

“She’s got to have a really appealing message — two or three bumper stickers that essentially summarize her,” Muzzio said, going on to suggest one such slogan. 

“I think the bottom line is that she is ready, willing and able — and she could argue that the Republican field is not ready, and they might be willing, but are they able?”

The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Team Hillary’s apparent difficulty in boiling her candidacy down to a pithy message is all the more surprising because the same dilemma confronted her during her first run for the White House, in 2008.

While then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) kept his campaign organized around the rhetorical anchors of “hope and change,” Clinton cycled through messages at a rapid clip.

In January 2008, Politico’s Ben Smith listed a number of slogans that had already been used before a single state had voted. Among them were, “Let the Conversation Begin,” “Big Challenges, Real Solutions,” “Renewing the Promise of America,” “Working for Change, Working for You” and “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead.”

“It’s shocking that, given the ‘coronation’ criticism Clinton faced since 2007, they haven’t developed a better rationale for the candidacy,” the anonymous Democratic strategist told The Hill.

A slogan is not, of course, the be-all-and-end-all of political campaigning.

Of the 2016 field across both parties, only Donald Trump, with “Make America Great Again,” has coined a memorable phrase. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has attracted some mockery for a logo that appends an exclamation point to his first name.

“Sometimes the value of a slogan is overrated,” said Ben LaBolt, a former White House spokesman who served as the press secretary of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “An exclamation point for Jeb probably isn’t going to win him the election.”

But LaBolt did make the larger point that “a clear and consistent message is essential.”

The lack of such a message is exactly what discomforts some strategists about Clinton’s campaign to date.

“Clinton’s policies are right on, but I still haven’t heard the slogan or catch phrase that makes the message clear,” Simmons said.

“Campaigns are like pop songs — voters need a beat and a hook. They’ll pay attention to the lyrics later.”

Tags Hillary Clinton

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