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Thoughts on Hillary Clinton's Career

Image result for red phone icon

It may seem a perverse subject for meditation on inauguration day for Donald J. Trump, but I'd like to take a Big Picture look at the woman who conspicuously isn't the center of today's ceremonies, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Think back on 2007, the early jockeying on the Democratic side, before any actual primaries or even caucuses had been held. HRC at that time was using the phrase "help make history." Support for her was helping to make history. She wasn't using the phrase "glass ceiling" much in that cycle, but the appeal suggested by the phrase was the same.

This would have been a perfectly sensible appeal for her to make, if the chief intra-party opponent had turned out to be Christopher Dodd or Joseph Biden, just another WASPy white guy. It might have been somewhat less sensible if the intra-party opposition had coalesced around, say, Joseph Lieberman or Bernie Sanders. But we'll get back to that.

A less hypothetical point is this: the notion that voting for HRC in particular would "make history" in a demographic sense ceased to be very germane when the intra-party opposition coalesced around ... Barack Hussein Obama.

HRC understood this. But it required her to make a mid-campaign shift in emphasis. She not only dropped the demographic stuff, she started making the appeal to experience, to the steadiness of the hands one wants near the red phone. She ran ads about the call that could come at 3 AM. Presumably she had been there when important 3 AM calls arrived in the residential portion of the White House, and that would make her hands steadier. With these new guys from nowhere, you never know.

Note that this isn't just a different campaign theme from the one she started with. Its the opposite theme.  The appeal to steady hands is always the appeal by the old crowd, to the one's who have been in power already. It is the appeal made for the perpetuation of a status quo by those for whom that status quo is a glass floor, not a ceiling.

HRC failed to secure the nomination that year. I think the reason may simply have been that the cognitive dissonance for this switch from one appeal to its opposite was too great for the party's base to absorb.

Flash forward: 2015-16. In the primary campaign this year, HRC makes little of the "woman card." She doesn't appeal to her demographic uniqueness until after she secures the Democratic nomination, and even then it was because Trump, calling such as yet unmade appeal the "woman card," forced her hand. She doesn't use it vis-à-vis Sanders at all, although of course there are others who do that for her.

At one debate, Sanders is asked how he would feel were he the one to prevent the first woman presidency in US history. If he had been Larry David (rather than simply someone who looks suspiciously like Larry David) he would have said, "so what would be the first Jew ... chopped liver?" But he didn't quite say that -- he gave a more muted form of that response.

Still, the demographic fact was not a big part of Clinton's repertoire. Perhaps she felt that she had been burned by it before, and this time she'd start and continue with the appeal to her steady hands. By this time, of course, he experience with ringing red phones was wider -- it wasn't that of a first spouse but that of a former Secretary of State. So she presumably thought this was a still stronger appeal against Sanders than it had been against Obama.

It was sufficient against Sanders, and she won the nomination. But ... his strength, despite the fact that he had been an utter unknown to most of the population of the US when the campaign began, may have indicated to cooler heads that the "steady hands" appeal of those standing on a glass floor had its limits in 2016.

The ending of my story you know. Perhaps none of it matters. An appeal coached this way versus one coached the other way. One might argue based on an old cyclical theory of American history that there was bound to be a rightward shove in this cycle, that the Republican nominee would inevitably win. Still, I am attracted to what seems to be an unusual thought: maybe Clinton's problem wasn't (1) that people didn't want to break that glass ceiling, still  less (2) that people thought she was over relying on that "card," but (3) that having learned the wrong lesson the last time around, she delayed making that appeal too long, and was too timid and defensive about making it when she did.




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