Hillary struggles with going big in campaign message


Hillary Clinton is struggling to provide a clear rationale for her presidential candidacy, even after clinching the Democratic nomination and surging ahead of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump in polls.

Last week, at a joint appearance with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Ohio, Clinton told the crowd that “we’ve got to go big and we’ve got to go bold” to fix the nation’s economy.

{mosads}But that was a rare moment of grandiosity. Mostly, Clinton’s campaign has seemed more cautious and prosaic than those of her rivals.  

Her main primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), inspired supporters by advocating a “political revolution” — a clarion call that helped him best Clinton among young voters, in particular.

In the general election, Clinton can offer a depth of policy experience that far exceeds that of Trump, who has never held elected office. But she also has no slogan as simple and straightforward as his exhortation to “Make America Great Again.” 

It’s a failure that some Democratic insiders find perplexing.

“It’s not clear what the over-arching message is yet,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “It is clear that being the anti-Trump has some value; it is clear that offering economic policy has some value. But there is no over-arching message.”

Another Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak with candor, put things more strongly.

“What’s her vision for the country? That’s the piece that I think they’ve got to articulate,” the strategist said. “Whether you like it or not, Donald Trump has a vision — I think it’s a scary one. But her message and her vision isn’t clear.”

It’s a difficulty that has dogged Clinton throughout her political career. Her failed 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination cycled through slogans at warp speed, ranging from “in to win” to “the change we need.” 

The most memorable slogan of this year’s effort is “I’m with her,” which provides a rallying point for her existing supporters but says little about where she intends to take the nation.

Part of the difficulty, Democrats say, resides in Clinton’s cautious personality and her past political experiences. Her tendency toward incrementalism doesn’t lend itself to bumper sticker slogans, but she learned the hard way how tough it is to enact sweeping change. Her push for health care reform during the first term of her husband, President Bill Clinton, ended in utter failure. 

Those past political experiences help explain why Clinton exhibits a mild disdain for the soundbites that Sanders and Trump — and other candidates — can deploy so readily.  

When Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists almost a year ago, she told them, “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

Her arguments are such moments may well be fair, or at least plausible. But “change allocation of resources” is not the kind of call to thrill the masses.

In addition, some people suggest that the sheer length of Clinton’s record means that it is hard for to her to gin up the same enthusiasm as new arrivals on the political scene. 

Trump “can say anything and he gets applause because he’s fresh and new. She doesn’t get the same applause because she’s not fresh and new,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s more difficult for her than it is for him because Trump has no political history and can therefore say anything and do anything.” 

Others within the Democratic Party, however, argue that Clinton’s steadiness could be an asset, especially in contrast to a rival with such a polarizing personality as Trump. 

“Let’s face it, Hillary is not an exciting candidate. Trump is,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “But she is steady and earnest, where people see Trump as erratic. They don’t want an erratic president.”

Opinion polls for the moment are going a long way to calming Democratic nerves. Clinton holds a clear advantage, even if its scale varies considerably from poll to poll. She led Trump by 4.8 points in the Real Clear Politics national polling average as of Friday afternoon.

Seen through that prism, it may be enough for Clinton to keep a steady course, make use of her considerable financial advantage — she and her allies are vastly outspending Team Trump — and hope the vulnerabilities of the presumptive GOP nominee will spell his doom. 

Still, others caution against complacency.

The Democratic strategist who requested anonymity noted wryly that the statistician and forecaster Nate Silver had recently put the chances of a Clinton victory at 79 percent.

“When someone is telling you that you have a 79 percent chance to be president, of course it’s going to make a campaign more risk-averse. But it’s five months out! Every poll that went into Nate Silver’s model is completely worthless!”

The strategist added, in relation to the Clinton campaign, “I think they might be overthinking it. Yes, she’s got the experience and the knowledge and the intelligence to lead the country. There’s no question about that. What people want to know is where she’s going to lead it.”


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