If Hillary Clinton succeeds in winning the Democratic nomination – and it is looking more and more iffy – she and the Democrats will be grateful for the harsh reality check Barack Obama has imposed on her candidacy. Let’s face it. She has been an awful candidate running a terrible campaign. You cannot win the presidency ricocheting from the insecurity reflected in her now famous tears in New Hampshire to the arrogance of Bill Clinton’s racially-polarizing barnstorming in South Carolina. In order for this Ohio-Texas firewall of hers to work, Hillary Clinton has to retool, changing her strategy, revitalizing her campaign, and redefining her message. Otherwise, she will lose. However, if she succeeds in reviving her campaign, she will be grateful that her crisis came during the primaries, making her a more effective candidate for the general election.
All campaigns ebb and flow. John McCain was lucky to bottom-out in the fall, before many voters really paid attention. The entire Clinton franchise benefited from the myth of Bill Clinton as the (self-styled) “Comeback Kid” in 1992, when he did not even win the New Hampshire primary but stayed viable as a candidate after enduring so many scandals.
Hillary Clinton seemed to think that she could float into the presidency, or certainly into the Democratic nomination. In this way, she was not only badly served by the sycophants she loves to surround herself with, but she was deprived of an opportunity to sharpen her skills during her 2006 re-election campaign. Her easy stroll to re-election in New York State made her staffers complacent and muddied her message. Rather than being forced to come up with a compelling new message and creative new strategies in a large, diverse state, she took a stately victory lap – and frittered away tens of millions of dollars along the way.
Now, she has to prove her own abilities to rebound. To do so, she should learn from two politicians she detested, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton should study Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He, too, was disliked by many, with the enmity lingering from White House controversies of the previous decade. To mollify some of his critics, Nixon and his advisers launched the “New Nixon,” a softer, friendlier incarnation, promising to restore harmony to the nation.
Part of the problem Hillary Clinton faces is that Nixon’s strategy implicitly apologized for his previous harsh partisanship. But while her husband is the great bite-your-lower-lip apologizer, she is not. Like another Republican, the current president George W. Bush, she is famously unwilling to apologize, to acknowledge imperfections. To her, apologies are a form of weakness, and she genuinely feels she has nothing that requires making amends.
Americans, however, love stories of redemption – especially in campaign season. During the 1984 campaign, after stumbling in the first debate against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan stopped his slide with one quick quip. By coming back at the President again and again in the first debate, Mondale made Reagan look old and befuddled. Reagan responded in the second debate by quipping: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Surprisingly, that comeback line helped Reagan rebound and win the election.
Hillary Clinton should launch the new Hillary by apologizing to her supporters for running such a terrible campaign. If done right, without acknowledging any previous mistakes, without opening up all the Clinton controversies from the 1990s that linger, a broad enough, sufficiently self-critical apology could acknowledge the widespread doubts about many issues, bury the past, and look toward the future.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton has to show she has internalized the criticism by running a crisper campaign with a more passionate message. Experience – especially given how spotty her record as First Lady really was – is not enough. Americans are yearning for vision, seeking inspiration, craving redemption. Hillary cannot echo Obama as the “change” candidate; he has got that market cornered. But she can pull a classic Clinton move, triangulating between Obama’s optimism and John McCain’s real national security experience. Let the new Hillary be the candidate of true American values at home and abroad, promising to restore a sense of national virtue while maintaining American security and stability.
Rather than running away from Iraq, Hillary Clinton should run toward the complicated diplomatic issues the next American president will face, and the continuing threat of Islamist terror. She represented New York during 9/11, she knows what devastation America’s enemies can bring. She can prey on fears of Obama’s inexperience by tackling the foreign policy issues America faces directly. And if she can figure out a couple of clever, defining quips along the way – that wouldn’t hurt either.