For all the clever tweets, sophisticated data, and focus group tested messages the Hillary Clinton campaign pumps out daily, they may have forgotten to ask the simple question that should be at the heart of every campaign: If voters had one sentence to explain why they support her candidacy, what would it be? After nineteen months of campaigning, I’m not sure they have an answer to that.
Donald Trump’s supporters have an answer – that he’s a change agent who will disrupt the status quo, shake up the establishment, and provide a voice for Americans who believe that society and its elites not only have forgotten them but disrespect them as well.
In fact every successful presidential candidate in recent political history was able to provide that one sentence answer.
Barack Obama was all about finding hope and promise in an America increasingly defined by progressive, inclusive, and new generation attitudes. In 2000 George W. Bush reached out to Americans who sought conservative governance but wanted compassionate values.
Bill Clinton gave expression to baby boomers who wanted validation and a struggling middle class that wanted economic security. And Ronald Reagan spoke for Americans who ached to recapture their national pride and luster after a decade of war, scandal, economic anemia at home and fecklessness abroad.
Losing candidates rarely offer that one sentence answer. Does anyone remember what Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Bob Dole represented? When in 1980 Ted Kennedy offered a rambling and barely coherent answer to the basic question — “Why do you want to be president?” — his campaign for the Democratic nomination all but deflated. And the one losing candidate who did have a message – Al Gore, who staked his candidacy as an advocate for the people versus the powerful – actually won the popular vote.
So what cultural or political current is Hillary Clinton expressing?
Axiom one in politics is that a candidacy must be about our aspirations, hopes, and worries – about us – rather than the candidate him or herself. Clinton violated that when she branded her campaign as all about her — “I’m With Her,” as her campaign slogan put it.
And that then violated axiom two in politics, which is to define your candidacy before your opponent and the media do it for you. So if your candidacy is all about you, then it becomes a referendum on who you are personally, and in Clinton’s case – with her history of controversies – she gave her rivals and the press a chance to paint her in the most unflattering terms.
Donald Trump too has his personal vulnerabilities, many of them. But he also has a message about the country he wants to lead.
Hillary Clinton has given voters plenty of reasons to vote against Donald Trump, but few reasons — beyond her resume — to vote for her. If enthusiasm for her candidacy remains no hotter than lukewarm tea – and she loses because of that – then the reason is very simple: she never defined the America that she wants to lead.
Adapted from an article originally published in Political Wire.
A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written two books on American politics and culture and frequently writes for major print and online publications. He is currently a professor of communication at American University and a CBS News political analyst.
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