THE BLOG
01/05/2008 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Handlers Have Hurt Hillary

The hallmark of Clinton campaigns has been their "war rooms", their ability to respond immediately to the scurrilous attacks or innuendo.

This set of "handlers" is blindly following that same script. But, the times are different, the Clintons' achilles heels are not weakness or inability to strike back, and the opponents were--not yet--the Republicans but other Democrats. A strategy understanding the different times and different needs would have been far more effective.

After all, they had almost the ideal candidate. Name recognition was 100%. She was the victim, not the perpetrator, of Bill Clinton's problems, and she could have been loved for the enemies she made. She had boatloads of money, almost unlimited resources. She had stood at the doorposts of power for 8 years, and learned how the White House worked. She had been a successful US Senator for 6 years, winning a stunning re-election victory. She has been working on public policy for 35 years that provided her intimate and detailed and historical knowledge of many of the issues and policy choices. Contrary to general opinion, she is actually a very good speaker, and, during the Clinton Presidency, was more rousing than he usually was.

Her problems: she permanently offended a slice of the female electorate by belittling baking cookies (i.e., being a housewife), and, like Bill, parsed her statements so finely that she seemed inauthentic. A secondary, but real, problem is that there was an impression conveyed of entitlement--i.e., this was, somehow, "her turn", and the assumption was she had already paid her dues. Inevitability was portrayed as entitlement.

A completely new team would have assessed Hillary's weaknesses objectively, and concluded that her major problem is not strength, but authenticity. No individual thinks himself or herself to be inauthentic, and so Hillary could not be expected to consider this paramount herself, but that is why outside consultants are hired to surface and deal with it, not ignore it.

Instead, her campaign has operated as if the rest of the world is just "plain wrong" about her authenticity, and used the old Clinton playbook to run the campaign challenging anyone who doubts what they are trying to spin about her. Stating, "I am authentic", or having your mother say she'd vote for you even if you were not her daughter, actually shows the campaign does not get it when it comes to this perception. "The Hillary I Know" was one of the most ridiculous attempts to "convince" people of authenticity that I have ever seen.

One cannot put together a logical argument to say you are authentic. Just like Richard Nixon needed to be truthful, not launch something he called "Operation Candor", what she needed to do was to behave authentically, not announce it.

Let us take a few examples. How long has Hillary been saying about Iraq, "If George Bush won't end the war, I will"? Despite her prior positions, and being the last of the Democratic candidates to apologize for her vote for the war, the reason her refrain rings hollow is not the main clause, it is the previous conditional clause that suggests there is even a remote possibility that Bush would end, or even wants to end, the Iraq War. For Hillary to convey her position on the war with this statement over and over and over makes her seem,.... well, inauthentic.

If the conditional clause is a joke, what inexorably imprints itself on peoples' minds is 'how serious is she about her two word statement that she will end the war?'. If her seriousness about such a serious matter is uncertain, how authentic can she be? And, Hillary's main problem with the Democratic electorate is her position on Iraq, she has never been able to say point-blank, "I was wrong"; instead all she would say is that if she knew how badly Bush would bungle it, of course she would have voted differently. So, here we have the most problematic issue for Hillary, and her campaign hands her a line, that I am sure was focus-group tested, that fails to connect on the issue (L-Brain) and reinforces the perception of her inauthenticity (R-Brain). Everytime she repeats it, she compounds the problem.

What about her recent comment about Musharraf being on the ballot in Pakistan? Biden attacked her for making this mistake as an indication she did not understand a key country's political system, and the Clinton camp pounced extolling Hillary's experience in foreign policy and belittling Biden's standing in the polls. Again, it rang hollow. Everyone knows that Biden is far more experienced in foreign policy than Hillary, and the attempt to turn her into something she is not seems, again, inauthentic. Instead, why not say that she has had the opportunity of meeting many of the world leaders, that she has, and will have, the benefit of advice from people like Bill Clinton, and that together she and Bill had learned a lot about the world, and would assemble a great team to advise and help, perhaps people like Joe Biden himself.

Recall, for example, Obama's brilliant response to Hillary's cackle when he was asked how he could bring about change with so many of Clinton's advisors on his team. If the shoe were on the other foot, a Clinton campaign type of response to that would have been a stinging statement about the observation that so many of Clinton's advisors HAD chosen him. Instead, Barack said, "I look forward to having you as one of my advisors, Hillary". Think of what that did---it actually praised Hillary, while belittling her at the same time, while leaving in peoples' minds the uncontested statement that many of Bill Clinton's advisors had chosen Barack over Hillary. If a campaign has a moment, this was one of them. Why? Because it reveals something about the underlying characters---who Barack is, without premeditation, and who Hillary is trained to be (laugh, they told her, at any slight)--the cackle.

Many people support Hillary BECAUSE they think Bill Clinton would be closely involved. So what did the Clinton campaign do? It announced that Bill Clinton would not get top secret briefings. That works for Judith Guiliani (whose training as a nurse apparently qualified her, in Rudy's eyes, to be a top advisor on biologic warfare) but not for a former President of the United States. Did Hillary REALLY want the US to be without Bill Clinton's advice and wisdom on sensitive matters? I do not think anyone bought that either. And, if they did, then they were disappointed in her judgment, her first "act" as a prospective President.

There is a reason for all of this ineptitude. The campaign-- borne in "fight" mode because that's how it is perceived you get ahead in a Clinton team--believed that Hillary had to be established as her own person, that dependency equalled weakness, and that is what they were geared to combat. Sure, had she just been herself, she would have been challenged, "is this going to be YOUR Presidency, or a 3rd term for Bill?", "is this really a triumph for women, if you remain dependent on your husband?", but those can be easily answered, "the problems created by the Bushes are so enormous that what we need is the greatest expertise and experience we can bring to bear for the American people, and it is not about us, or me, or even a triumph for women. I welcome ALL the help and guidance people can give me, and Bill Clinton happens to be the most experienced person in the country on these matters. Thus, I leave it to the American people to make their judgments on whether they want the best answers to their problems, or some kind of phoney distance between two married people." Now, THAT would have been authentic, and people would have begun to change their views of this lady and, interestingly, NOT because Bill Clinton would have been acknowledged to be helping her, but because she could be...authentic!

Staffed by "fight mode" types, the Clinton campaign's failure to deal with the authenticity issue by actually letting her be authentic, is magnified by the online world's ability to pick up and disseminate any hints of inauthenticity. When you are focus-group/talking-points practiced, the online echo chamber smells a rat. The planted questions, the control of questions in campaign rallies, even the half-hour appearance on Meet the Press rather than the whole hour, all reinforce the perception that she has something to hide, and does not want to get caught revealing herself.

As soon as a phrase caught on with another campaign, they adopted it, without ever wondering if the phrase and Hillary really worked together. Someone who voted for the Iraq War, and defended that vote, and then refused to apologize for it, was going to be the "change" candidate? Yeah, right.

That is not to say that others do not have similar authenticity problems. Edwards's $400 haircut was itself no big deal except he shows up daily with perfectly coiffed hair. While Barack Obama was Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Review and could have made a huge amount of money coming out of law school, he chose to be a community organizer; Edwards decided to make a lot of money, and to build a 29,000 square foot home, and work for a hedge fund. And, yet Edwards is going to be the candidate railing against "greed"? A bit of a tough sell as his lack of union family support in Iowa showed. Not because his analysis was wrong, but because he has an authenticity problem as the vehicle for that message. Barack does not.

There is an old maxim in warfare that one should never put the same general in charge of two different wars. The reason is there is an irresistible tendency to demonstrate that mistakes made in the first war were not really mistakes, but the situation is entirely different. Churchill's insistence on a third front through the Balkans during World War II may be attributed to the failure of Gallipole in World War I that was his brainchild when he was First Lord of the Admiralty.

The Clinton campaign's major mistake was putting the same generals in charge, and taking the advice that worked in a different time, with an unknown Governor from a small southern state, when cell phones still weighed a pound or two, and applied that to a universally-known First Lady, successful US Senator from the second largest state, in a new age, with YouTube, text-messaging, blogs, and 1 ounce cell phones that imposed new requirements for candidates' authenticity, when that happened to be the major negative this candidate had to overcome.

Even the savviest people asking the wrong questions are not going to devise the right answers.