Hillary Clinton is Cold and Unlikable: So What?
Hillary Clinton is cold. And I am not talking just ordinary cold like Mike Dukakis, the man who could eat one potato chip, or John Kerry, who once joked that he was going into the hospital to have his "aloof gland" removed. I am talking real cold. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Hillary "has to prove she has normal human warmth."
As a recent article in Slate stated, "Clinton can be easily portrayed as cold, calculating, and ruthless, and that's not a problem that can be easily fixed." In the past, this has been no small matter. I have written a great deal about the importance of likeability in presidential elections and how, from Ronald Reagan on, the more likeable candidate has always won.
But like generals fighting the last war, I wonder if we pundits might be overlooking something this time. Something like two terms of George W. Bush and the limits of likeability.
Bush was sold to the American people in large part on the basis of his affability, his warmth and how he would be "a uniter, not a divider." He was running against Al Gore, and Al Gore was, as the press wrote endlessly, an unfeeling technocrat who was "not comfortable in his own skin."
For a book I was doing, I went down to Austin, Texas in 2000 to interview Bush's campaign staff. And likeability was very much on their minds. "People view Bush as real, authentic, funny," Ari Fleischer, his spokesman, told me. In private Bush focus groups the words that people associated with Gore were "alpha male," "disconnect" and "attack dog."
The words associated with Bush were "optimistic," "cheery," "bold" and "likeable." There were some problems. Under Bush, Texas ranked near the bottom of the 50 states in access to health care and cleaning up pollution. But in a poll asking "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with," Bush won hands down.
None of which was shocking. The only thing that shocked me was when I asked a top Bush aide: What do the American people think of when they think of Bush's qualifications for president? "Adequacy," the aide told me. "Americans want a strong, sensible person with convictions that won't change, not a guy who has plans to colonize Mars."
Another Bush aide told me the entire purpose of the campaign was to show that Bush could clear the minimal "bar of competency" and after that the voters would be won over by his affability and warmth. Four years later, with Bush up for re-election, not much had changed. Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, said: "To become president in this era, you have to go to a bar or a bowling alley or a diner and have people feel you belong there. The question is, can you hang out with them?"
America wanted likeable and it got likeable. It also got the Iraq war, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
So maybe likeable has its limits. In a way, Hillary, as her campaign officially refers to her, is helped by bad reviews and low expectations as to her likeability. If you go into the crowds after her speeches, you often find people who say she is far warmer than they expected. Some people are surprised she doesn't stand on stage and bite the heads off chickens.
On her announcement tour in Iowa in January, she told an overflow crowd in Des Moines, "I am here to have a one-on-one conversation -- you, me and several hundred members of the national press." Everybody laughed.
In another speech on the same trip, she said, "I grew up outside Chicago. I come from a family of fanatic Bears fans. I went off to college and met this guy from Arkansas." Everybody went, "Aww."
True, warmth is not Hillary's dominant theme. She has an applause line that can only be described as unique: "It is hard to get an insurance company to pay for a visit to a podiatrist, but they will pay to have your foot amputated!"
That line always brings down the house. And not because amputation is a particularly warm or affable topic.
It is because people are furious with the health care system in America, even more furious with the empty promises made by politicians every four years and may be looking for somebody who understands their anger and is willing and able to do something about it.
Voters in a post-Bush election actually may be looking for someone who is competent. Hillary is not alone in stressing competence. Barack Obama does not stress warmth and fuzziness in his speeches, but issues and inspiration. On the Republican side, both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani stress how they are men of accomplishment.
And when former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacks Bush, which he has been doing with increasing frequency lately, he goes to the heart of the competency issue. "The government is not functioning," Gingrich said a few weeks ago. "It's not getting the job done. Republicans need to confront this reality."
So perhaps the election of 2008 will be a post-likeability, post-warmth, post-have-a-beer-and-hang-out election. Then again, maybe not. Maybe we haven't grown up that much. The choice is ours. Because as Adlai Stevenson once said, "Your public servants serve you right."
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