The fact Hillary Clinton is well known is allowing her to keep her policy positions unknown. Thus far her 2016 strategy completely contradicts 2008’s — then Hillary was a policy diva, today we must divine where she stands. The danger in Clinton’s short-term approach is it threatens to increase the long-held questions many Americans have about her.
After decades of seeing her in the brightest public spotlight, we feel we know Hillary Clinton all too well, but increasingly we find that we do not know her positions at all. It was not always thus.
In 2008, she ran for president as a policy expert nonpareil. Her campaign captured her image in a famous ad: “It’s 3 AM and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call.”
Of course, hindsight is 20-20. Today, it is not lost on her that policy positions did not help — and one in particular, her Iraq War vote, cost her dearly in 2008 versus a comparative unknown. So this time when again facing relative unknowns, she is willing to let the phone keep right on ringing into voicemail. Presumably, she will return these calls once in the White House, but not until then.
The result has been a scrupulous avoidance of all things substantive. This begins with the press. In May, the media ran a tally of her days (almost a month) avoiding them.
Clinton’s substance avoidance is particularly difficult when a number of today’s most pressing issues run through Hillary’s past.
An overarching question is how closely she will follow the policies of an administration she was integral to. Ostensibly the architect of the White House’s foreign policy, will she seek to mend the U.S.’s frayed relations with Israel? In regards to ISIS, what level threat does she see it and how does she intend to address it?
When it comes to trade, where does Hillary stand? Does she endorse the administration’s push for a Pacific region trade deal, or does she support the bulk of her Congressional party in rejecting it?
Similar questions exist in many other areas — from fiscal to environmental to social issues. However, her answer is the same: Silence or platitudes.
Clearly, Clinton does not intend to move substantively until forced by her competition. She realizes the majority of Democrats see what they want to see in her — the first woman nominee of a major party and potentially the first woman president, a mainstream liberal, a policy wonk. For now, she is content to let them keep seeing, without showing her positions.
Perhaps this is politically astute. Avoiding positions now, when the electorate that matters most is a mostly left-of-center Democratic Party, means not going too far to the left early and leaving flexibility to run to the center when facing the broader electorate later.
However, her change in approach is a radical departure for her — and more importantly: in her. Her long-cultivated image is that of a policy maven. Today’s change directly counters who she was just eight years ago and who she has always been.
Changing how she runs, is to change who she is. Such a shift does not avoid weakness as much as it goes to her greatest one: America’s acceptance of her. For all Clinton’s public time and talents, the broad public has never embraced her. It is why she could lose to a freshman Senator seven years ago, why she is so concerned about her primary competition today, and why she cannot open a real lead over the many Republicans vying to face her.
Hillary’s frontrunner status rests on having been so visible for so long. No other public figure has so commanded the public stage for the last quarter century. Presidents have come and gone, including her husband, but Hillary has remained — going from First Lady, to Senator, to Secretary of State, to president-in-waiting for the last few years — never leaving center stage.
Her current presidential strategy highlights her personal paradox: the more we see her, the less we find we know her. Today, the more she is seen, the less she feels she needs to show. Yet by doing so, she gets no closer to having America embrace her and increases her risk of losing that embrace once again.