Hello, New Hillary And Old McCain
Gifton Wright, 14, of Spanish Town, Jamaica, spells a word correctly during the third round of the National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, May 31, 2012. He is one of nine finalists to go on to Thursday night's competition. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) / Jacquelyn Martin
Whoever thought that getting teary would be a good career move for a woman?
But it was. In a single moment in New Hampshire last week, when Hillary Clinton became dewy-eyed responding to a question about how she copes with the strains of the campaign, a new Clinton strategy gelled. Gone was the candidate who lived in a bubble, too busy to take more than a few questions from voters. Gone were the imperious recitations of r?sum?. Gone was the idea that the voters needed to simply understand that "I should be president." Instead, in an instant, the once-inevitable-and-now-behind nominee welled up and said, "It's not easy." And with that, some voters--particularly women--began to see Hillary in a different light: as a human being.
Make no mistake, this election is not going to be hospitable to robo-candidates. Just ask John McCain, who started his campaign looking more like an Establishment, run-of-the-mill GOP contender and saw it almost disappear last July. Facing extinction, he redonned his maverick mantle, got back on his bus, and answered every voter query at more than 100 town halls across New Hampshire. He cajoled, he argued, and people tuned in again. He was up against Mitt Romney, almost a favorite son--the former governor of Massachusetts who owns a summer home in New Hampshire. Yet Romney's by-the-book strategy--replete with negative ads--didn't cut it. The voters preferred someone they considered the Real Deal.
For McCain, that new place was a natural haven, and the voters sensed it. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it was clear the man was having a great time. He knew, he told me, that his support for the president's immigration reform proposal--with its path to citizenship--was a liability. The intensity of the feelings about the issue surprised him, but he found a way to adapt. The voters didn't trust the government to fix the fence and secure the borders, he told his audiences. Then he pledged to restore faith and trust in government. He had the experience to do it, he said--and considered it his civic duty. And people believed him.
For Hillary, the transition was harder. After all, fighting against Barack Obama--with an 80 percent approval rating among New Hampshire Democrats--was like trying to demonize Mr. Congeniality. Bill Clinton worked hard to demystify what he called the Obama "fairy tale." And Hillary made it clear she didn't think he had been fully "vetted" by the American public and certainly wasn't ready to lead. Sure, the voters wanted change, but at what risk? Didn't experience count for anything anymore? How could the voters possibly be willing to "roll the dice," as the former president asked, on this new guy?
Genuinely fresh. Trouble was, Obama reminded voters of everything the Clintons were not. His campaign seemed almost post-political. He asked his audiences to become a part of something larger than their own self-interest. He excoriated Washington Insider-ism. He promised he would fix a broken government with his fresh eye and better instincts. He didn't just promise change; he promised "change we can believe in." And Obama was easy to believe. He was not just fresh; he was genuine.
In the end, the Clinton campaign had to lose to win. After Obama's victory in Iowa, Clinton's staff became visibly alarmed that he had split the women's vote with Hillary. Those voters were supposed to belong to her, and they didn't. And then someone got it. These women weren't rejecting Hillary's experience as irrelevant. It's just that they saw her as someone who couldn't get beyond the divisiveness. Worse, she constantly reminded them of polarized politics by talking about the Clinton administration as if she had run it. Weren't the Clinton years all about partisanship? She was giving the voters a rant just as they were hunting for a post-partisan candidate. Ipso facto, the appeal of both Obama and McCain.
McCain retooled by going back to his rootsas a truth-teller. But for Hillary Clinton, the shift now is into new territory, into a candidate we have not yet seen--warm and fuzzy, responsive, personal. The durability and authenticity of the New Hillary remain unknown. But remember this: Hillary Clinton started off by telling us, "I'm in to win." After her comeback last week, she told her audience, "We are in it for the American people." And, as they say, there probably wasn't a dry eye in the house.
By Gloria Borger