Mission possible? Turning Hillary Clinton into a fresh face
Since taking the national stage more than two decades ago, Hillary Clinton has been lauded by some as a groundbreaking role model and denounced by others as an overbearing power-grabber. Her new campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination represents her best, and possibly last, chance to reshape her public image.
To win the general election — if she does become the Democratic nominee — she’ll need to persuade Clinton skeptics who resent her coronation and are exhausted from the hype and media circus that has attended her family’s past campaigns.
As a former presidential campaign spokesperson for Howard Dean, and before that a political journalist, here are four suggestions for how Clinton can reinvent her personal brand and take control of her narrative.
Stop the drama: Clinton campaigns (Bill as well as Hillary) are famous for their power plays and backbiting. That nonsense takes away from the candidate’s message and creates a variety of unforced errors that she can’t afford this time around as the presumptive nominee. She’s already made a positive move by hiring my former Dean campaign colleague Robby Mook as her campaign manager. His data-savvy credentials have gotten the most attention, but what’s really significant about him is his personable demeanor and level-headedness, a rarity in political circles, and even more so in Clinton circles. If anyone can control the infighting, it’s probably Mook (even though a rival tried to knock him off in November by leaking his emails to the media). To this end, an important early move would be answering questions about Clinton’s emails as secretary of state, once and for all. This way, it might not become a lingering campaign distraction.
Show some emotion: Business-management literature has been grappling for years with the so-called “likeability conundrum,” the phenomenon in which women viewed as nice are considered dumb, and women viewed as competent are perceived as cold — and they’re penalized either way. Clinton, who made headlines by crying in New Hampshire during the 2008 campaign, has had a particularly tough time threading the needle on this, including her decision to drop the “Rodham” from her name. In 2008, some pundits believed she veered too sharply toward “competence.” This time, she’s frequently invoking her status as a new grandmother and attempting to balance out her political bona fides with a regular gal, “I eat at Chipotle, too” charm.
Keep Bill Clinton under control: There’s widespread agreement that Bill Clinton is one of the most gifted politicians of his generation, and for the purposes of the 2016 race, that means only one thing: Hillary Clinton is going to look bad next to him. She doesn’t possess his effortless ease with crowds, and — even worse — the 2008 race showed that he has a tendency to go off-script when he’s feeling protective of her. That’s why the campaign, smartly, is keeping him in check this time around until the timing is right.
Be the candidate of ideas: Hillary Clinton’s famous 2008 campaign announcement video — lampooned for its triumphalist “I’m in to win” quote — isn’t going to cut it this time around. In her new launch video, the focus is on others, and she’s driving an economic justice message. But the real question is whether her campaign can demonstrate vitality through new ideas. The master of this, of course, was her husband in his 1996 campaign, when he touted small but concrete policy initiatives like school uniforms and V-chips. If Hillary Clinton can generate similarly memorable proposals, she’ll go a long way toward demonstrating that she’s fighting for real people and real ideas, not just her family’s dynastic ambitions.
Clinton’s name recognition is enviable. But in order to win over skeptical voters, she needs to spend the next 18 months strategically reinventing her brand.
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