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Hillary Clinton’s Catch-22

Hillary Clinton’s Catch-22

Warm and approachable aren’t exactly the first words that come to mind when describing Hillary Clinton. When 29 New Yorkers were asked to describe the former Secretary of State, Senator, and First Lady, some of the words included “solid,” “intelligent,” “capable,” “badass,” “empowering,” “fearless,” and “pantsuit.”

Yet, Secretary Clinton’s campaign announcement conveyed a much softer side of the candidate. The two-minute video featured a range of Americans – a gay couple, an expectant mother, two Hispanic brothers – all of whom were entering transitional periods in their lives. Consequently, Secretary Clinton’s core message is that she wants to fight for them. The emphasis here was not on “I” but on “you,” and in particular, on “your vote” and “your time.”

This greatly contrasts to Secretary Clinton’s message from the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, where she was featured sitting alone on a couch with the cocky “I’m in it to win it” attitude. When Secretary Clinton formally began campaigning, she soon became known for holding massive rallies and portraying her victory as inevitable and her ideas and experience as clearly superior to those of the other candidates in the race. Subsequently, she was widely criticized for being distant, unapproachable, and arrogant; an image that contrasted deeply with that of the charismatic and energetic then-Senator Barack Obama.

In contrast, Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign announcement was followed by a low-key road trip to Iowa, where she made several unannounced stops at gas stations and local restaurants, engaging in a string of intimate discussions with voters; her road trip through Iowa has been so quiet that she even managed to stay incognito at a local Chipotle. Low-key, indeed.

Despite the campaign’s obvious change in tone, critics are still framing Mrs. Clinton as calculating and “too much of a professional politician”. This is the catch-22 situation that Mrs. Clinton finds herself in today – either she’s distant and cunning or she’s just manipulative. It seems as though any attempt she makes at being more relatable will inevitably be accused of being disingenuous. 

However, it would be premature to dismiss Mrs. Clinton’s efforts this early on. Yes, her campaign now is very different from the one in 2008. But so is her hairstyle. The bottom line is Mrs. Clinton is trying to correct the mistakes that she made in 2008, which shows an extraordinary amount of humility. 

Paul Begala, a veteran Clinton adviser, was quoted in the New York Times defending this change in strategy. “This is a relationship. So when she does a different kind of video or holds different types of events, she’s saying, ‘I hear ya, I get it, and I’m going to show you that I’ve learned and will be a better candidate and president because of it.’ ”

Perhaps Mr. Begala’s interpretation will be harder to swallow because the Clintons have been under the political spotlight so long. Ultimately, however, as the former secretary of state embarks on her bid for the White House a second time, her campaign announcement has set the tone for a more progressive and relatable candidate. The next challenge Secretary Clinton faces is finding a way to tie her message to specific policies. With the intense media scrutiny following her campaign, there is little room for error.

- Paula Zampietro