Why Hillary Is Hiding in Plain Sight on Her Big Day
If you’re Hillary Clinton, the most frustrating part of running for President must be the popular conception that you have a monopoly on ambition, egotism, and cold-blooded calculation. There will be more than a dozen, perhaps even 20 or more, human beings who will attempt in the next 577 days to convince a plurality of American voters to make them the most powerful person on the planet. But only Hillary is the one who, before she has even moved into her new offices in Brooklyn, has the neighbors greeting her with this.
Ambitious … calculating .. secretive … these are adjectives that describe every person who has ever run for president and every person who ever will, but with Hillary, they stick. “Saturday Night Live” did a whole cold-open sketch last night imagining the backstage intrigue behind today’s announcement—Hillary is such a first-name-only driver of political intrigue that the biggest comedy show in the country just opened an episode with a full six minutes about her constructing a Tweet—and the undeniable takeaway from the segment was “she wants this too, too much.” And of course she does! What kind of lunatic would run for president—twice—who didn’t?
Thus, the central conflict of the entire Hillary Clinton campaign: How do you sell one of the most famously ambitious people on the planet as someone who wants to be president for you rather than for her? How do you sell any of this as “real”? We never believe when politicians say this; we’re skeptical that the guy down the street is running for school board for any reason other than his own ambitions, let alone someone running for president, let alone Hillary.
The campaign is in this strange, untenable position wrought by a combination of today’s political culture and their candidate’s exhaustive familiarity. She needs to appear spontaneous and unscripted, “real,” but anything that she does that’s even slightly spontaneous and unscripted will be seen not as a sign of authenticity, but as a gaffe, or off message. Considering her status without having made a single speech or having campaigned a single day—the lack of challengers, the betting markets thinking she’s an overwhelming favorite—the way to deal with this, it seems, is to sit on the lead as long as possible. Thus, as she announced her endlessly discussed, eagerly awaited candidacy for the Oval Office in 2016 on Sunday afternoon, it was striking how little of Hillary there was in the Hillary ad.
The other candidates who have released ads so far, we can’t get away from them; we see their face or hear their voice within seconds. Not here. Here are recognizable human beings with recognizable human problems. Worrying about finding a job after college. Stressing about the baby on the way. Fretting that working hard just won’t get you as far as it used to. Getting your damned dog to stop eating the trash. Hillary doesn’t show up until 90 seconds into a two-minute, 18-second video, and even then, it’s a shot of the back of her head. (Talking to a guy in Yankees hat, no less.)
This is key. In the wake of the email pseudo-scandal reminding us why were suspicious of Hillary and the Clintons in the first place, we found ourselves skeptical of even things Hillary said that were obviously, demonstratively true. (Hillary is the first person I’ve ever seen get hissed at when she said she was excited to be a grandmother.) But you can’t be skeptical of the people in the ad. They feel like us: Demographically chosen for maximum strategic value, of course, but relatable nonetheless. They feel normal.
My favorite is the mom in the purple jumpsuit doing her little dance with the shears; you might like the nervous shiver of the mom going back to work. Each of them comes to us new, in a way that Hillary never can. Hillary might not be a recognizable human being anymore—she can’t even say she’s a giddy grandma without people getting mad—but the key to her success, to overcoming everything we think we know about her, is making it about them, about us, and not her. This gets her out of that impossible bind of everything feeling either scripted or like a gaffe: If you don’t believe her, believe them. Believe you. This, oddly, becomes a point in favor of Hillary having few Democratic challengers rather than the toughen-her-up theory of maximum intraparty engagement; it reduces the chances of unforced errors. Don’t look at her; Look at them! Who doesn’t love older couples with a cute dog? C’mon!
It’s a clever, reactionary populism. If you don’t like what people are saying—if those unfavorable numbers are too high—change the conversation: Turn it outward to the people. It would seem awfully difficult, even with a low-impact primary season, to sustain this strategy for a 577-day campaign. This is, after all, a campaign video that barely features the candidate. But then again, Ted Cruz’s ads have to make him look like a Michael Bay cowboy; many voters don't know who Ted Cruz is. We know who Hillary is. That’s the problem. On the first day of her campaign, Hillary went about fixing it by releasing an ad that had her hiding in plain sight. All told: That doesn’t seem like the worst way to kick this off.