Political Hay

Script and Stage

Hillary Clinton is taking a page from the Bush campaign playbook. Will it work?

By 10.19.07

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Earlier this month, Sen. Hillary Clinton lost her cool with Randall Rolph, an Iowa voter who dared to ask about her vote in favor of a resolution seen by anti-war activists as a pretext for war with Iran.

It was a chilling moment, and one that likely made Clinton's campaign team recoil in horror. But it was also a heads-up to campaign observers that Clinton, who espouses the need for change, hates the unpredictable as much as President Bush. Next year, America could be in for a repeat of the script-and-stage strategy used by the Bush team in 2000 and 2004.

The Bush strategy drew the ire of the politically engaged when the campaign requested that attendees to a New Hampshire event submit their questions in advance so he wouldn't be caught off-guard and strategically placed people with Bush-friendly stories at "Ask President Bush" events in the run-up to the 2004 election.

But they got both -- and, fast-forwarding to 2007, it looks like they might get much of the same from Team Clinton. Clinton's ability to stick to generalist talking points that offer no real room for criticism or debate is renowned -- witness her comment on "The View" this week about torture, which failed both to define the term, and other "extreme techniques," and noticeably did not rule out use of the latter. More to the point, witness her campaign's preference for "impromptu" campaign stops, where Secret Service agents have already established the overwhelming presence of Clinton loyalists, including those flown in from out of state, as reported to have occurred in Iowa by Britain's Daily Telegraph.

Indeed, a concerted script-and-stage campaign is being conducted by the Clinton camp. But the main question is, will it work?

Certainly, Clinton's staff has earned praise from pundits thus far for the campaign's remarkable discipline, and of course, she leads her nearest Democratic rival (Sen. Barack Obama) by close to 30 points according to the latest Real Clear Politics average. It's not surprising -- after all, Clinton's team is copying what looks like tried and tested strategy. Bush, the master of script-and-stage, was elected in 2000, and re-elected, in 2004, in the latter case against what seemed initially to be overwhelming odds.

But, while script-and-stage might be seen to have delivered Bush two victories, it hasn't been a complete success -- and Clinton would be advised to take note. Bush's apparent unwillingness to deviate from scripted sound bytes has continually irked the media, and some voters, too, who see him as less-than-credible since he seems unable to talk "off the cuff." (Though, to be fair, Bush's renowned ability to fumble verbally enabled him to appear less scripted than he was -- an impression from which the articulate and unquestionably bright Clinton is unlikely to benefit.)

More crucially, script-and-stage may have been at the root of what arguably remains Bush's biggest defeat: his 19-point loss to Sen. John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. That event has been blamed on Bush's disinterest in engaging with voters and the press, as opposed to McCain's unscripted chit-chat on the Straight Talk Express and little-staged townhall meetings in the capital of retail politics. This is a point that Team Clinton cannot have failed to grasp, and one that is important, looking forward to a protracted general election campaign, such as that on the cards for 2008.

Next year, due to the heavily frontloaded primary schedule, the Democratic and Republican nominees will be waging war with each other for longer than ever, and a heavily choreographed campaign will likely be noticed (and not in a good way) by voters. More to the point, script-and-stage will be harder to employ as a winning strategy, should Clinton be headed for a match-up with ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, as looks increasingly likely.

Giuliani, exhibiting a similar flair for "off the cuff" to his friend, McCain, has recently drawn in Republicans with his seeming avoidance of canned lines, and his ability to wisecrack and talk in a way that sounds devoid of rehearsed soundbytes (witness both his performance in recent debates, and his ability to contend with a question about alien invasion this week). He will be acutely aware that it is paying dividends, and indeed that it has before, most notably for McCain.

So will Clinton -- but for her, dispensing with script-and-stage will be more perilous. Notorious for talking at voters, not to them, and displaying contempt when not heavily scripted, she'd be taking a big risk by dumping her current strategy. But keeping it restricts her to looking like the cold, unapproachable candidate -- not a good thing.

The choice for Clinton's handlers, then, remains Clinton reined in, or Clinton gone wild. Based on the backlash sparked by last week's "bitch-slapping" of Rolph, the smart money is on Team Clinton sticking with the former -- no matter the risks.

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