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Under the guise of how to keep an idiot in suspense, I spent a good part of my Sunday waiting for Hillary Clinton’s much-anticipated Twitter announcement.
And then it came – surprise! – John Podesta, her campaign’s senior advisor, issuing this email to Mrs. Clinton’s fan base: “I wanted to make sure you heard it first from me – it’s official: Hillary’s running for president. She is hitting the road to Iowa to start talking directly to voters. There will be a formal kickoff event next month, and we look forward to seeing you there.”
Followed moments later by this video that popped up on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign site:
Which, in turn, raises questions as to why Mrs. Clinton decided to enter the race this way.
About the venue – a slick video that’s long on “average” aspiring Americans and short on candidate face-time (Hillary doesn’t show her face or utter a word until one-and-a-half minutes into the two-minute-fifteen second-video). It’s both similar to and different from the announcement of eight years ago. In January 2007, Mrs. Clinton made her announcement via videotape. And she did it perched on a living-room sofa, in this family-friendly two-minute web video.
But in that 2007 video, it’s the candidate doing all of the talking, with no supporting cast. In 2015, it’s the opposite. If that’s the thinking — the less you see of her, the more you’ll like her – that doesn’t bode well for the candidate’s long-term prospects.
And there’s the follow-up strategy. In 2007, Mrs. Clinton took part in a series of video web chats during the week after her announcement. In 2015, the thinking again is to engage with the masses – this time, small-scale events with voters spread out over the next few weeks.
But to those who were expecting more, allow me to pose this question: what were her options?
Whereas Mrs. Clinton introduced herself in 2007 as the fortunate daughter of “a middle-class family in the middle of America” and in 2015 as “the champion” of “everyday Americans”, the reality is she’s far removed from Illinois and has little if any interaction with the nation’s working class (this is assuming she buys her own groceries or makes an occasional visit to Starbucks).
Plan B could have been a public event closer to home in Chappaqua. Then again, Mrs. Clinton hasn’t left much of a footprint in New York. And forget about that other residence in the nation’s capital. The last Democrat to make an inside-the-beltway announcement work was JFK.
That left the campaign free to announce pretty much wherever they liked in the “lower 48”. But to do so would require coming up with a backdrop that underscores the campaign’s essence. And at this point, the only essence to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, aside from the obvious gender factor, is this being in essence the Clintons’ last hurrah (by contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, an immigrants’ son, will kick off his campaign today at Miami’s Freedom Tower, an early stop for Cubans arriving in America).
Then again, this is much the same problem – how to repackage a familiar product as something fresh and original – that besets many a repeat campaign.
In November 1979, Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign with this 5-minute message – as you’ll see, no adoring audience and pretty much the same message as in 1976.
So much for originality.
Then again, it didn’t matter. Reagan, lamenting an America adrift both at home and abroad, had his finger on the nation’s pulse. And he was an established conservative brand, not a finger-wetting, wind-testing triangulator.
Other second-time candidates haven’t been as fortunate as Reagan. In June 2011, Mitt Romney traveled to a farm in Stratham, New Hampshire to preach economics. Four years earlier, he started his first presidential run in Dearborn, Michigan reaching out to social conservatives. Reporters noted the difference and Romney found it difficult to escape a media narrative that questioned his core beliefs (remember “severely conservative”?).
A more painful example would be Al Gore. In April 1987, the then-senator started his first presidential run in Washington, D.C. – not an accident, as he was tying to channel JFK (”Americans may feel, as they did in 1960, it is time for our country to turn to youth, vigor, intellectual capacity,” Gore immodestly said at the time).
Fast-forward to June 1999 and Gore launching Al 2.0 at his family’s hometown in north-central Tennessee. “With your help, I will take my own values of faith and family to the presidency to build an America that is not only better off but better,” Gore declared.
The problem: Gore wasn’t born in Carthage, Tennessee and, though his resume did included “farmer”, that seemed a reach. The candidate had spent his formative years in the nation’s capital as a senator’s son. By the time the 2000 election rolled around, he was closing in on two decades as a D.C. politician. In short, Gore didn’t fit in with the Tennessee of the New South, with its GOP ascendancy. Gore would go on to lose his “home state” and it would cost him the presidency – ironically, to another southerner better suited to talk faith and family.
Perhaps the Clinton campaign judged wisely by not resorting to a sentimental journal that would only dredge up bad history or point out the candidate’s weakness. Then again, if her campaign fails to be novel, hers may be a telenovela with a bad ending.