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The "Authenticity" Gap: Why Clinton v. McCain Will be Hard to Win and Very, Very Ugly

01/25/2008 07:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Clinton-McCain match up gives Republicans the "authenticity" edge for the third consecutive presidential election and that's why I'm starting to lose sleep. "Authenticity," not to be confused with authenticity (sans quotes), is the perception of genuineness, the quality of what-you-see-is-what-you-get-ness that is more highly prized in a presidential race than any stance on any particular issue. While George W. Bush may have been a pathologically duplicitous leader, often to the point of high farce, he has always been "authentic." George W. the Human Being is the same as George W. the President is the same as George W. the Candidate.

This is why he "won" two elections. While John Kerry and Al Gore were both brilliant, honorable statesmen, neither was as comfortable in his own skin as America's favorite son George. We all know this shouldn't have mattered, but it did -- and we have been blessed with the last seven years. I could go further back to Clinton the First and Reagan to further expound on the theory of "authenticity" but I think you get the point. So, on to 2008...

I'm not saying Hillary Clinton isn't actually authentic, but "authenticity" is all about perception, and John McCain wins this battle blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back. Say what you will about the man's political inclinations, he is off-the-charts "authentic." This means we risk a third straight election fighting an uphill "authenticity" gap - with a few key differences.

First, while George W. Bush was a giant dartboard of character flaws, John McCain isn't.

"Bush is inexperienced." "Bush is arrogant." "Bush is lazy." "Bush is an ideologue." "Bush drove drunk." "Bush ducked Vietnam." "Bush killed my cat."

Do any of these work for John McCain? Right.

Second, McCain is a war hero.

Third, John McCain is -- drumroll, please -- actually authentic. No quotes needed. You may not agree with him, but, as politicians go, he's about as decent as they come, so you have to respect him. And almost everyone does.

Scared yet? So what should Hillary do?

Gore and Kerry came to the table armed with a laundry list of policies but lacking a central vision (those "ideas" Barack Obama correctly praised Reagan for). They demonstrated that a policy-wonk Democrat will still have huge problems against any Republican who is deemed more "authentic." What Hillary will need in order to overcome this gap is more than a superior platform. She will need a superior vision (or "vision").

Does she have one? Well... kind of. Like her Democratic rivals, she is peddling the elixir of change (Now with More Experience in every bottle!), but Hillary's vision of change is perceived as a collection of progressive policies rather than a broad sweeping movement. While Obama wants to change the tone and Edwards wants to change the class system, Hillary seems to be fighting for...well... the same as those other guys, but with a longer résumé. Her campaign has changed slogans as often as Rudy changes wives, and one has to wonder whether her "vision" has the clarity to compete against McCain.

It's not a slam dunk. Against the opportunistic Romney or the Bible-thumping Huckabee, probably. But McCain is the wrong matchup. His message mirrors hers -- change with experience -- except that he's got more experience. And while any opponent can easily condemn Hillary as "more of the same," given the 20 dynastic years of Bush-Clinton-Bush, McCain is uniquely positioned to level such a charge given his renowned independent streak. It will be hard for Hillary to sell herself as a breath of fresh air running against the man who has made the media lazily forget that the word "maverick" isn't actually a prefix for the word "senator."

I'm not saying Hillary can't beat McCain, and I'm not saying she wouldn't be a wonderful president. But, I think it is important that we ask ourselves, as Democrats, how she would approach such a race.

The last few weeks have given us some frightening clues. Hillary is currently in a close race against the more "authentic" Barack Obama. She has some natural advantages that she has been exploiting, such as: name recognition, the "experience" factor, and the tantalizing prospect of being the country's first female president. She also has one key disadvantage: her comparatively muddled "vision." But rather than working to make her "vision" more clear and compelling, and pressing her natural advantages, Clinton's campaign has increasingly resorted to Rove-ian mischaracterizations of Obama and his positions (apparently Barack defends slumlords, is iffy on a woman's right to choose, and has a crush on Reagan).

These attacks may ultimately work against Obama, chiefly because people don't know him, just as most Americans didn't know John Kerry before he ran for president. But they know John McCain. And that's why these sorts of attacks won't work on him. Whether or not independent voters agree with McCain's politics, few question his character. Have no doubt: if the Clintons try to swiftboat John McCain, it will surely backfire.

Any Democrat who faces McCain will be in for a good fight, but I believe Obama (or even John Edwards) has the clarity of vision, the perception of authenticity, and the actual authenticity to be able to fight fair and win. With Clinton, I worry that her deficits will force her and her husband into desperation and ugliness. Current trends are not encouraging.