A year ago everyone assumed that by the early winter of 2008 Hillary Clinton would have locked up the Democratic nomination for president. She had money, name recognition, and a seemingly well-oiled machine. Now she is on the ropes, fighting to stay in the race. What happened?
Senator Clinton lacked one ingredient in the mix to make her a winner: the ability to project a sense of hope and optimism. I write this before the Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania primaries, so she may be able to turn this around. But, even if she wins the nomination, Senator Clinton needs to learn how to project a sense of hope and of a greater future for America if she is to win the general election. With the possible exception of Richard Nixon in 1968, every successful presidential aspirant since 1932 has been the more optimistic, hopeful candidate. Hope and a sense of a better future have been the key to electoral success.
Many things we might want in a president have not always been found in the winner.
Do we want the smartest candidate? Not likely. Herbert Hoover, a successful engineer, was probably brighter than the failed lawyer, Franklin Roosevelt. Thomas E. Dewey was surely better educated that Harry S. Truman. The erudite Adlai Stevenson could think rings around Dwight Eisenhower. Although many people would not want to admit it, Dick Nixon was no dummy. While not as sophisticated or urbane as John F. Kennedy, he might have been smarter. Nixon came up out of poor circumstances to be a star in law school and very smart lawyers, as well as a politician. That took brains. Putting together an academic bowl team? We would take Barry Goldwater, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis over Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Hillary Clinton is very very smart (so of course is Barak Obama), but being smart does not always get you elected president, especially if you convey to the electorate that you know you are smart. Intellectual hubris does not get you votes. Adlai Stevenson, Mike Dukakis, and John Kerry learned that the hard way.
The voters also don't want too much honesty. That does not mean they want their candidates to lie, because they do not. But the voters seem to prefer a hopefully optimistic program to the cold truth. Walter Mondale was honest in saying taxes would have to go up. It killed him at the polls. Herbert Hoover wanted to talk about the details of ending the depression, FDR just promised he would figure out how to do it, and only guaranteed the he would make sure prohibition ended. That was a policy all Americans could understand.
Knowing the most about the issues does not guarantee victory. Al Gore and Mike Dukakis were policy geeks. It got them nowhere. I am sure that Hoover and Nixon had a better grasp of the complexities of the government than did FDR and JFK. But, still all these policy wonks lost. George McGovern had elaborate plans to end poverty and the War in Vietnam, but his plans left us cold because voters don't want to hear the details. H. Ross Perot kept telling us the "devil is in the details," but what neither he nor Senator Clinton seem to understand is that the voters don't want the details. Senator Clinton may know more about health care than Obama (and she may have a better program to offer us) but that has not impressed voters who zone out when the details are presented.
What voters want is to be reassured that the candidate cares about them, has the ability to accomplish something, and that the candidate will promise a better future. Bill Clinton, from Hope, Arkansas, understood that "hope" was the magic word. Senator Clinton, however, has been unable to convey a sense of optimism, of a better future, of "hope." Jesse Jackson had no chance of getting the nomination when he ran, but he electrified Democrats -- black and white - by urging them to "keep hope alive."
Consider the elections from 1932 to 1996.
Hebert Hoover offered a dull, business-like determination to end the depression. His ideas were not wrong, but the technocratic engineer could not inspire anyone to hope for better times. Franklin Roosevelt never stopped smiling, offering a jaunty optimism. His theme song was "Happy Days are Here Again." Roosevelt's campaign had few concrete programs, and some, like his promise to balance the budget, were wrongheaded. His most specific program was that he would end prohibition. Otherwise, he ran on the promise of optimism and hope. On inauguration day he told Americans that they had nothing to fear "except fear itself." Hungry, out of work Americans had pictures of FDR in their homes, knowing that he would lead them to a better time. The promise of hope, led to his reelection in 1936 despite the fact that the Depression had not been ended. Hope and trust carried FDR to two more electoral victories.
In 1948 Harry S Truman was supposed to lose. All the polls said so. But Truman was genuine; the voters trusted his plain spoken bluntness. "Give 'em Hell Harry" promised people a "fair deal" in the wake of World War II. Truman was the guy next door you trusted - and the Army captain in World War I that the soldiers trusted. He inspired hope because of his own accomplishments and his willingness to speak truth to the people. Dewey, who did look like the little statue on the wedding cake, was unimaginative and offered little in the way of hope or a promise for a better country. He lost.
In 1952, for the first time in more than twenty years, there was no incumbent running. Adlai Stevenson was the darling of labor, intellectuals, and New Dealers. He was quick witted, wry, ironic, and thoughtful. He saw too many sides of the issues to inspire a sense of hope and prosperity. Had he been running for dean of some college he would have been a shoe-in. But he was no match for Ike. Being a general did not guarantee you would win the election. Certainly it did not help Winfield Scott. Nor did generalship guarantee presidential success once in office - just consider Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, or Benjamin Harrison. But Ike's broad smile, his supreme self-confidence, and obvious leadership skills did inspire hope - hope that he would end the Korean War - which he did - and hope that he could help create a better economy - which he did not. But, he did inspire hope and it worked.
In 1960 there was a stark choice. On paper Nixon was the better candidate -- with more experience and a better resume. But Kennedy offered hope and a sense of a better future. He won narrowly. Had he not been Catholic, he would doubtless have won with greater margins. Given the way Nixon later behaved in the White House, it is clear that the people made the right choice - to vote for the candidate of hope rather than the candidate with the best resume who appealed to our anger rather than our better instincts.
In 1964 the Republicans nominated the candidate of anger. Barry Goldwater wanted to dismantle social security, sell the Tennessee Valley Authority, and maybe use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. He had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Lyndon Johnson offered the hope of what would become the Great Society. He won in a landslide. The Great Society did not fully come into being - Vietnam destroyed it. But remnants of it, like Head Start, remain his legacy of hope.
In 1968 the nation voted against the candidate of hope -- the happy warrior -- Hubert H. Humphrey. It was the only time since 1932 that the candidate of optimism lost to the candidate of anger. But, in some ways Nixon also offered hope. He promised to end the Vietnam War - he had a "secret" plan. That was enough for many people, fed up with Johnson's war and his credibility gap. Humphrey could never figure out who he was that year, and the circumstances of his nomination were hardly hopeful. Gene McCarthy and the late Bobby Kennedy had won all the primaries. They were the candidates of hope and neither got the nomination. The stench of tear gas from Grant Park and the images of billyclubs in the hands of Mayor Daley's police undermined the hopefulness of Humphrey's campaign.
After 1972 the Democrats had a hard time focusing on hope. George McGovern promised an end to the Vietnam War, but most of his campaign focused on the negatives of American society. He was personally optimistic, but at the same time presented a moralistic, preachy tone. It was not the tone or message needed to unseat the relatively successful Nixon. McGovern lacked clarity of his vision and was bogged down in the details of his plans to end poverty. He was not a policy wonk, but at times came off a little like one.
Jimmy Carter, in 1976, did offer us hope that we could overcome the embarrassment and corruption of Nixon and Watergate. He was smiling, happy, and very human. His interview with Playboy defused much of the fears that many had about his self-consciously religiosity. His opponent was solid, and earned high marks for helping us move away from Watergate, but he also had no sense of vision or higher purpose. Faced with growing inflation, Ford offered us a slogan -- whip inflation now -- and a rather stupid WIN button. He had not program and no leadership. It is worth noting that in terms of resume, Ford should have been a great president. His many years in Congress taught him how Washington worked and how to get something through Congress. But, legislative experience did not translate into executive ability.
By 1980 Carter had lost any sense of purpose or vision. He was trapped in his own White House by his failure to deal with the Iraq crisis and with his vacillation and then failed effort to use force. With gasoline prices at record highs Carter's only plan was to don a sweater and sit in front of a fireplace, urging Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and raise them in the summer. This was neither hope nor leadership; it was not a plan. The Democrats almost dumped him for Ted Kennedy, who offered the promise of a hopeful future and a return to his brother's vision. But the incumbent Carter beat Kennedy at the Convention. He then ran as a grim, angry, tired, and ineffective leader, humiliated by a revolution in Iran and stymied by an energy crisis. No wonder the nation embraced the smiling, self-confident Reagan.
Four years later Walter Mondale promised to raise our taxes and make us pay for the sins of excess. It is hard to imagine a more uninspired campaign or one that was more destined to lose. Mondale's preachy self-righteousness was no match for the Gipper's smile, even if some of us suspect he was beginning to lose his focus. Reagan still offered the promise that it was "morning in America" and the future was grand.
George H.W. Bush did not inspire anyone. He should not have won. In fact, he did not so much "win" as Michael Dukakis lost. The Massachusetts governor promised competence and success. He was the candidate of the future: smart, technologically sophisticated, and above all, competent. It was a different kind of hope, but as America entered the technology age, it was a winning offer. There was just one problem: Dukakis's campaign was incompetently run and managed. Rather than the technocratic whiz, he was saddled with his Alfred E. Newman impersonation in a National Guard tank. His campaign was clueless. He promised competence and could not deliver.
Bill Clinton avenged Dukakis, beating the incumbent Bush over a failed economy and a failed sense of promise. The first George Bush talked about "the vision thing," but in fact he had no vision. Clinton offered up hope from his aptly named home town, Hope, Arkansas. He inspired Americans to believe that there was a better tomorrow while offering a level of technocratic competence. Four years later the Republicans were back in their "angry man" mode, with Bob Dole preaching about shame and the failure of the nation to appreciate the sacrifices of his generation. It is hard to imagine if Dole ever smiled in the campaign. He lost.
The message of these elections is that the candidate of hope is almost always successful. This is not always true in the primaries, where angry activists create candidates like Goldwater and McGovern that simply were unelectable. But in the general election, smiles and hope go a long way. Campaigns may still go negative, but the candidate must remain positive. The current president Bush brilliantly used others to go negative, as he smiled his way into the White House, beating better qualified, more competent, and brighter opponents. There is a lesson here.
I am not arguing that campaigns are only about hope and smiles. They are surely not. And not every hopeful, smiling candidate makes a good or competent president. But, candidates that can inspire hope and confidence are more likely to win. Some political scientist should do a study of smiles in the campaign. Someone should also study the rhetoric of hope and of a brighter future. My guess is that a pattern would emerge, tying success to those who give us a sense of a better tomorrow.
This should be a message for the Democrats this year. John Edwards refused to offer a message of hope or a better future. He asked Democrats to engage in class warfare. And he lost even though many thought he would be the best candidate in November. Senator Clinton has so far failed to inspire hope with her campaign. She knows the issues as well as anyone ever could. Her programs are smart and workable. On health care she has a great plan. She inspires many women who want a woman president, and many men as well for the same reason. But the inspiration does not come from her speeches and her campaign, but simply from who she is. This is not enough. The Democratic candidate should remember the words of the song writer Earl Burnett, and "Keep your sunny side up, up! Hide the side that gets blue."
Paul Finkelman, a historian and legal scholar, is the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, in Albany, New York.