There’s an old saw in sports: “A seven-game series doesn’t really begin until the home team loses.” That’s another way of saying: “These series are marathons. Wake me up when something surprising happens.”
Well, if this year’s Presidential Campaign season were a seven-game series, we’d have to say it hasn’t started yet. You see, Hillary Clinton is definitely the home team. She’s the one who started as a clear favorite – way ahead in the polls against any Republican and with a path to the nomination that’s worthy of an incumbent. And indeed, while the polls have tightened in terms of her head-to-head contests against the Republicans, she still has the lead against all the challengers … and she still has an open lane on the Democratic side.
But that doesn’t mean we should continue to sleepwalk through the campaign. There have been some troubling developments for Team Hillary, and they don’t bode well for the future. Hillary may poll favorably compared to other candidates, but when people are asked what they think of her, the results are ugly. She does especially poorly when it comes to trustworthiness. Nor does she excel as someone people think they can relate to. If I’m correct that Americans tend to vote for the person they’d most like to see announce an NFC Championship football game, Hilary is certainly no lock.
Finally, however, it looks like she’s beginning to recognize the problem and do something about it. Continuing with the football metaphor, up until this week she’s behaved like she’s running a prevent defense in the first quarter. All of the positions she has publicly advocated have been safe ones – positions where she stands with a clear majority of the American electorate and an overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party. These include opposing military weapons and armored vehicles for local cops, and supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
This week, Hillary remained on safe ground. She took on the issue of voting rights. And shrewdly, she stayed away from the issue of whether we should require photo IDs (most Americans, but probably not most Democrats, say “yes”) and focused instead on whether we should expand early voting. Of course Hillary supports the expansion of early voting. Who doesn’t -- other than folks who want to suppress the vote?
What was different this week wasn’t the content of the message but the style. This was Hillary the street fighter. She got her scowl back. She sharpened her rhetoric. And she started to call people out by name. Referring to such Republican governors as Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and John Kasich, Hillary said that they and their Republican colleagues “systematically and deliberately try to stop millions of Americans from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
I like Hillary most when she’s angry. Strike that – I don’t so much like her then, but I respect her then. That’s when she’s at her most effective. There are plenty of ways for human beings to show passion, but Hillary doesn’t seem terribly skilled at expressing them, unless she’s expressing anger. Then it works. And at those times, she is also demonstrating one of her greatest attributes: she can scare Republicans. In other words, she’s no pushover and she actually seems like someone who knows how to return a dis-favor. If you get a chance to listen to Kasich’s response, he falls all over himself to say how much he likes Hillary before he explains that her polarizing message isn’t helpful. Well, it might not be helpful to him when she kicks ass and names names, but it’s her best shot if she wants to get elected.
Hillary has probably come to the realization that she’s not going to win Miss Congeniality. She knows that there’s never been a cold, hard woman elected to the White House, but then again, no sweet, demure woman has been elected either. Her candidacy is truly uncharted territory. In situations like that one, you’ve got to do whatever it is you do best. In her case, that means counter-punch. Note that the Republicans have attacked your husband for being a lyin’, cheatin’ cad, and then lambaste them for being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Note that the Republicans have decided to tackle the scourge of voter fraud, and then lambaste them for being “afraid” of democracy. And surely, every time the Republican cattle car rolls from one issue to the next, and the bulk of the cattle try to pander to the Ditto Heads and the Coulter-Clones and the other extremists on the hard right, Hillary will do her best to channel Peter Finch from Network. It was Finch’s Howard Beale who coined the mantra: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” OK, fine, Hillary won’t act quite as crazy as Finch, but she won’t exactly come across as a happy camper either. And the beauty of it all is that the bulk of the Republican candidates will present to her one issue after another on which she can express her indignation, and the majority not only of her Party but of our country will agree with her in every instance.
According to the Clinton formula, there is no need for her EVER to take a position that is not popular with at least 50% of Americans. In other words, there is no reason for her proactively to throw a punch – or, to be less metaphorical, to set forth in any depth her vision for leading this country. You see, truly inspired leaders are willing to take positions that aren’t terribly popular at the time because they see things that most of us don’t. These leaders have the courage of their convictions and have the charisma to convince others to join the fight, even if they weren’t initially inclined to do so.
But Hillary hasn’t yet proven herself to be such a leader. She’s never demonstrated a particularly coherent or inspired vision. Nor has she demonstrated a willingness to take unpopular positions. Indeed, when it came to perhaps the singularly most important vote of her Senate career, she voted with W to invade Iraq for what appears to be purely expedient reasons.
By now, Hillary has surely learned the painful lesson that when a boxer proactively throws the first punch, he leaves himself exposed to his opponent’s fist. So why not play it safe – especially when you’re the ultimate home team? Just wait for the opponents to screw up and then call them on it. Do it loudly, like Howard Beale did. Make the audience hate THEM, and relate to you.
Follow this formula, and ultimately, enough folks will like you. And they will vote for you. And you will never have to lose your lead … or your home-field advantage. It’s not the most compelling way to win an election, but against this field of Republican candidates, it’s still more likely than not a winner.