A Word of Advice for Hillary Clinton

Her appeal is being a dealmaker. Stop pretending otherwise.


Photographer: Andrew Renneisen

The secret of success, somebody once said, is sincerity: If you can fake that, you've got it made.

This is the crux of Hillary Clinton's likeability problem. It isn't just that she can't fake sincerity, though that's bad enough if you want to succeed in politics; it's that she can't seem sincere even when she is. Donald Trump on the other hand fakes sincerity very well -- beautifully, in fact -- by seeming not to care what people think. Many people love it that he seems not to care what they think. It's refreshing.

I hope Clinton wins. I don't believe Trump's election would be an extinction-level event for democracy in the U.S. or the end of the American Republic, and I can even imagine a Trump administration succeeding after a fashion, but I do think he's a terrible candidate and would be a risky choice. I prefer Clinton -- forgive me for gushing -- because she meets certain minimum standards of familiarity with public policy and coherent thought. Yet when it comes to politics, she obviously needs help. Allow me to offer some.

Does she need to get a life outside politics, as David Brooks recommends? Bad idea. That's the worst thing she could pretend to do, because it's about the least believable. Clinton is self-evidently all politics, all the time. It would be pointless for her to claim otherwise. Worse than pointless, it would be recognized as fake.

Voters don't much mind a candidate that's all politics, all the time, so long as she doesn't pretend she isn't. And though it helps to be liked, it isn't strictly necessary -- not even if the candidate carries the extra burden of being a woman. Margaret Thatcher was never much liked.

Somebody who offers competence -- meaning the ability to get things done -- may be highly electable even if she's seen mainly as a political calculating machine. Claiming to be able to get things done has been a big part of Trump's prospectus; being a decent, charming fellow hasn't.

All of this suggests a set of mutually reinforcing anti-Trump strategies. If I were on candidate Clinton's payroll, this would be my advice.

Whatever else you do, be less ingratiating. No more Saturday Night Live appearances. Nothing, really, that might call for laughter. Under no circumstances agree to interviews intended to suggest a softer, human side. Even if there is one, it makes no difference. People aren't ever going to believe it.

Once you've secured the nomination, track back to the center -- partly because that's where the swing votes are, but more because that's where people think you are. Anti-capitalism, anti-finance, anti-trade and so forth work well for Bernie Sanders because he believes it. You can't plausibly pretend to be a warrior for social justice, champion of managed trade or would-be scourge of Wall Street. Nothing in your record of policy-making, legislation, fund-raising or speaking engagements supports such a posture.

Emphasizing competent centrism helps with another key element of your winning strategy: You will be the better deal-maker. You know how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to command respect, how to work the system. In the primaries, this experience in the world of transactional politics was a weakness. After the convention, it's a strength -- and, better yet, it's who you are. Play it up.

You'll need to dial back the self-righteousness. The more you cast issues as matters of inviolable principle, with you on the side of ethics and intelligence and your opponents on the side of evil and ignorance, the harder it will be to strike deals; worse, the more you'll seem to be saying you're guided more by consistent values than by lust for power. Again, that's not plausible. Now and then, admit there's some merit in the opposing point of view.

As to specifics, Trump has prospered by stressing his opposition to supposedly unfair trade deals and his anger over illegal immigration. You've tried to deal with the first by tacitly conceding his basic point, hence your sudden doubts about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. You've tried to deal with the second by accusing him of racism. Neither approach is any good.

After the convention, your best bet on trade is to follow the example of the first President Clinton and make the case that trade is vital for U.S. prosperity. Yes, you'll say, agreements need to be fair. After looking more closely at TPP you've concluded that it meets that test (no need to say "gold standard") and that the great majority of U.S. workers and consumers would benefit.

Trump's tariffs would raise prices, lower living standards, and put people out of work. Your administration will support expanded trade while trying harder to help the victims -- along with the victims of innovation and other kinds of economic disruption. The public is open to this kind of argument. No doubt it's also what you believe.

Immigration is tougher. Your recent swerves on this have been so violent that even advocates for illegal immigrants are startled. Moving all the way back to the centrist position you once supported, and presumably still believe, might be difficult before the election.

After the convention, you can at least stop eliding the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. (A lot of voters think the difference matters.) The U.S. benefits from legal immigration, you can say; its doors should be opened wider to people with the skills the economy needs.

Mass deportation of illegal immigrants would be inhumane, you should say, even if it could be done, and as a practical matter the U.S. needs many of those people to stay on and keep working. But remember to mention that illegal immigration is wrong, and that you'll stop it, not just with fences but with more effective policing of employers hiring workers without documents.

After the election, we can talk further about getting all the way to the correct centrist policy. Points-based access for skilled workers. No more sanctuary cities. Permits for qualifying illegal immigrants (a criminal record would be disqualifying) but no path to citizenship. All concessions you'll want to make in coming to a deal on immigration reform.

You've let Trump make headway on trade and immigration with policies that are plainly absurd -- but which acknowledge widely held concerns. Don't capitulate (trade) or deny there's a problem (illegal immigration). Attack Trump, of course, but don't make this your whole campaign: His defects are in plain sight, and you need to make the positive case for Clinton. Say that you've got better policies, and unlike him you know how to get them done.

And, for heaven's sake, stop pretending to be normal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Clive Crook at

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