Top advisers to Al Gore were so worried that he would come across as wooden in the 2000 presidential debates that they set up a training facility at an aquatic center in Florida featuring a replica stage at a cost of $400,000.
It didn’t work.
This year Hillary Clinton’s advisers have embarked on a subtler strategy for fine-tuning the presidential candidate, according to a New York Times report published Tuesday. The plan amounts to a blueprint for spontaneity, to include more self-effacing humor, more empathy and more backyard parties.
Even top Democratic operatives chuckled publicly at the report. A blueprint for spontaneity? David Axelrod, the former key strategist for Barack Obama, tweeted his ridicule:
The shock of the friendly fire was a new twist on an old story for Clinton, who has endured media reports about advisers telling her to be less “ starchy ” on the stump going back to her first run for the US senate in 2000.
Renewed reports that she is trying for yet another image makeover, however, indicate the seriousness with which the Clinton camp is handling their candidate’s slipping popularity and other concerns. A major poll last week measured Clinton’s favorability at near historic lows among all voters – although it remains sky-high among Democrats.
Then came a decision by Clinton to abruptly change course on the quicksand issue of her campaign so far, her use of a private email account while secretary of state. After months of denials of wrongdoing and of half-apologies for using the account, Clinton finally came out on Tuesday with a simple: “I’m sorry about that.”
The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The campaign has elsewhere described its excitement at Clinton’s enduring strength in primary polling, where, even after dropping almost 20 points over the summer, the candidate still hovers near the high point of 48% support that she climbed to in the early fall of 2007.
In grappling with the question of Clinton’s personal style, however, the campaign is simultaneously confronting a familiar challenge for those running for president, while seeking to promote a unique candidate – one whose familiarity is unprecedented.
Voters, meanwhile, are showing a marked interest in political newcomers such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, raising not only hazards for Clinton but larger questions about what “authenticity” means in the context of electoral politics.
Stuart Stevens, a top Republican campaign strategist, said Clinton was in a “unique position”.
“‘New’ is still the strongest word in advertising,” Stevens said in a phone interview. “And I think it’s just very difficult to reintroduce someone who’s been on the scene that long.”
One of Stevens’ former employers, Mitt Romney, can be seen as Exhibit A in terms of a candidate who embraced efforts to remake his public image – down to a maneuver between the 2012 primary and general elections described as resetting an Etch-a-Sketch by another adviser – only to conclude that his real, true, likeable self had never actually made a campaign appearance.
“The thing that was frustrating to me is that people didn’t really get to know Mitt for who he was,” Ann Romney told Fox News a few months after the election. “People weren’t allowed to really see him for who he was.”
Stevens denied that a candidate makeover was a central challenge of the 2012 Romney campaign. In any case, he said, Hillary Clinton was not Mitt Romney, whom he called a relatively unknown figure outside of Massachusetts, where he had been governor, at the start of that cycle.
“What really defined Mitt Romney in the primary more than anything, probably, was the debates,” said Stevens. “There were 20-some-odd debates in the primaries. Every time you turned on the television, there was a Republican primary debate. And Mitt Romney, I think, won them all, probably.
“The Democrats [this cycle] are talking about having six.”
The first Democratic debate on 13 October could provide an opportunity for Clinton to debut her new élan – or it could provide the opposite. Standing onstage with Clinton is likely to be Vermont senator Sanders, a walking rebuke to the notion of political fashion.
It is in no small part the example of Sanders – who is ahead of Clinton in the polls in New Hampshire and gaining on her in Iowa, the first two states to vote – that has driven analysts to diagnose an authenticity deficit on Clinton’s part. Sanders’s supporters say they admire his uninterrupted commitment over decades in Congress to addressing income inequality and social responsibility. The fact that he would never accept a makeover is exactly why he doesn’t need one.
Clinton, who has occupied higher-profile and more numerous and diverse roles in the public eye than Sanders, is a protean character by comparison. From the wife who would not take her husband’s name to the Tammy Wynette-esque loyalist; from a foiled rival to Barack Obama to a global proxy for him; from the scripted Senate candidate to the boogie – down secretary of state.
Even the release of selected Clinton correspondence in the emails scandal, which would seem to open a window on the candidate’s private self (although numerous emails have been deleted without being published), has served up moments of casual humor from Clinton, as opposed to rigidity or imperiousness.
“It certainly hits the mark,” Clinton wrote to a state department spokesman about an editorial cartoon showing her using a wrench to try to close the valve on Wikileaks. “Can you hand me a wrench?”
Told that the P5+1 group of powers negotiating with Iran would henceforth be called the E3+3, she responded : “I already feel safer.”
The contemporary tendency to link spontaneity and authenticity is a relatively new one, said Joshua Knobe, a professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University.
The philosophical tradition, by contrast, judges the capacity for rational reflection as the “most distinctive and essential to a human being,” Knobe has written . But over the last century, he said, a countervailing association has emerged, between blurting things out and seeming real. Knobe pointed to Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner.
“You can imagine, hypothetically, someone thinking that Donald Trump is being inauthentic, because he doesn’t think carefully before his speaks,” Knobe said. “But people don’t seem to think that. They think that insofar as he ignores this – whatever it is that he could get by carefully reasoning things through – he’s being more authentic, and not less.
“And so we see this paradox, where the more you think deeply about what’s really important to you, and what you really care about – the things you value most – the less authentic you’re seen as being.”
In its quest for authenticity, the Gore campaign hired a panel of real live voters plucked from the campaign trail to serve as a focus group.
“You should relax, and you should smile more,” one focusee told Gore.
“You know,” Gore replied, “all this high-priced talent over here – they never told me that.”
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