Memo to Hillary Clinton: ‘You’re the Problem’

Best bet for a third Clinton term is if she runs as the “Real Hillary”—warm, open, and honest.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Ron Fournier
Dec. 19, 2013, 9:53 a.m.

The fol­low­ing is a faux memo, al­though its con­tents are based upon my in­ter­views with people close to Hil­lary Clin­ton. They spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity be­cause: a) Clin­ton has not de­cided wheth­er to run for pres­id­ent; b) she has not au­thor­ized any­body to talk about 2016 de­lib­er­a­tions; c) her friends, fam­ily, and ad­visers are still in the early stages of de­bat­ing strategies. This rep­res­ents one point of view.

To: Hil­lary

From: A Few of Us

Sub­ject: Anti-Hil­lary

The last we spoke as a group, you made it clear your mind wasn’t made up about 2016. We get it: You’re tired, and it’s too soon. And you’re right: By this time next year, you’ll know for cer­tain wheth­er you’ve got the fire in your belly, and we’ll be bet­ter able to judge voters’ at­ti­tudes to­ward a “third Clin­ton term.” (Sorry, we know you hate that phrase, but it makes a point.) Every­body on the team agrees you de­serve some space.

But a few of us felt com­pelled to jot down some “un­of­fi­cial” thoughts for you to di­gest dur­ing the hol­i­days. We’re a bit wor­ried about the nature of the team’s dis­cus­sions so far. What both­ers us is this: The talks are al­most ex­clus­ively tac­tic­al, tra­di­tion­al, and safe—based on a con­sensus that your brand is smartly po­si­tioned for 2016 and that you would be the pro­hib­it­ive fa­vor­ite. A few of us think dif­fer­ently. We think:

Buf­feted by jar­ring so­cial change, the Amer­ic­an pub­lic is dis­il­lu­sioned with:

  • Wash­ing­ton, es­pe­cially the grid­lock.
  • Polit­ics in gen­er­al, es­pe­cially the phoni­ness.  
  • In­sti­tu­tions, es­pe­cially the in­ef­fect­ive­ness.

As the 2016 elec­tion fast ap­proaches, most Amer­ic­ans in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­der­stand the im­port­ance of your ex­per­i­ence as first lady, sen­at­or, and sec­ret­ary of State. Your per­son­al ap­prov­al rat­ings are high­er than those of Pres­id­ent Obama. You should be proud. But, as you’ve heard us say, Amer­ic­ans make most of their de­cisions—from buy­ing homes and cars to de­cid­ing where to shop and how to vote—not with their heads, but with their guts. By that meas­ure, we’ve seen res­ults of psy­cho-so­cial sur­veys and of fo­cus groups that raise red flags.

Most Amer­ic­ans, in­clud­ing many of your sup­port­ers, con­sider you to be:

  • A creature of Wash­ing­ton.
  • In­tensely polit­ic­al (think of words like “cal­cu­lat­ing” and “am­bi­tious”).
  • An in­sti­tu­tion (and not just be­cause of your age. The Clin­ton fam­ily it­self is an in­sti­tu­tion, one freighted with bag­gage).

And so your biggest hurdle isn’t your age, the pres­id­ent’s re­cord, your hus­band, or even Benghazi/White­wa­ter, etc. It’s you, Hil­lary. You’re the prob­lem—that is, if you once again present your­self as an in­sti­tu­tion of Wash­ing­ton await­ing a polit­ic­al coron­a­tion. To win, you must be the anti-Hil­lary. You need to blast the pub­lic’s ca­ri­ca­ture of you to smithereens and re­place it with what we know as the Real Hil­lary.

In 2015-16, you must be:

  • Ac­cess­ible. Be a con­stant pres­ence on Twit­ter, Face­book, and oth­er so­cial me­dia (you, not your staff). Sur­round your­self all day with re­port­ers and pho­to­graph­ers. Ex­haust them with … you. Make John Mc­Cain’s “Straight Talk Ex­press” look like a buttoned-down op­er­a­tion. Op­er­ate with a flex­ible sched­ule that al­lows for off-the-cuff won­der­ful­ness.
  • Hon­est and Au­then­t­ic. Take tough stands and state them clearly. Make mis­takes and own up to them. As a mat­ter of fact, the only thing we should sched­ule for you every day is the “Daily Mis­take and Apo­logy.” We’re kid­ding … sort of.
  • Vul­ner­able. Re­mem­ber chok­ing up in New Hamp­shire? You looked hu­man. People like hu­mans. Don’t be afraid of look­ing tired or even grumpy; those are emo­tions that people can re­late to, if you ex­plain them. That horsey laugh of yours? Don’t hide it; you’re a funny, warm per­son. Let people see you. Be. Hil­lary.
  • Flex­ible. We live in a time of un­pre­ced­en­ted change, when in­sti­tu­tions ad­apt or per­ish. Be an in­sti­tu­tion that ad­apts. Be quick to change your strategy, your mes­sage, your staff (fire us first!) and, yes, even your hair­style. Tut-tut­ting be damned.
  • Small. People are tired of big in­sti­tu­tions. Travel light and run a lean op­er­a­tion. We’ve told people this for years but they don’t be­lieve us: While nobody feels a coun­try’s pain like your hus­band, you are bet­ter than Pres­id­ent Clin­ton in liv­ing rooms and at kit­chen tables. Far bet­ter. You are a mas­ter of the small talk and small ges­tures that still make a dif­fer­ence in polit­ics, es­pe­cially in states like Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Show them.
  • Com­pet­ent. This goes without say­ing, but that di­vided, plod­ding cam­paign op­er­a­tion you ran in 2008 didn’t work. It also sent a bad sig­nal to voters about how you might run their gov­ern­ment. A mod­el for your 2016 cam­paign would be (you’re go­ing to hate this) no-drama Obama. Also, your staff is one way to shat­ter the per­cep­tion that you’re a po­lar­izer. Hire a Re­pub­lic­an or two—ideally, people who worked for the Bush-Cheney White House and later (pub­licly) dis­owned the polit­ics of di­vi­sion. Sur­prise them.
  • Pop­u­list: Our de­tailed thoughts on your agenda will come in a sep­ar­ate memo but un­der­stand this: The next pres­id­ent of the United States (Demo­crat or Re­pub­lic­an) will be a pop­u­list. In­come dis­par­ity and de­clin­ing so­cial mo­bil­ity are clichés in Wash­ing­ton, but in the rest of Amer­ica, they are facts of life. Middle-class voters, es­pe­cially, are angry and scared, and they’re hungry for a lead­er who will carry them across that bridge built for the 21st cen­tury. Bor­row from pop­u­lists on the left (Eliza­beth War­ren’s at­tacks on Wall Street) and the right (Rand Paul’s at­tacks on NSA sur­veil­lance) to be the sin­gu­lar can­did­ate for our troubled times.

In ad­di­tion, you could play on voters’ dis­trust of gov­ern­ment by reach­ing back to the first Clin­ton White House (no­tice, we said “first”) for a ser­i­ous plat­form on “re­in­vent­ing gov­ern­ment.” What if, for ex­ample, you prom­ised to spend your first 100 days in of­fice fo­cused ex­clus­ively on mak­ing good pro­grams (read: Demo­crat­ic pro­grams) even bet­ter—say, Head Start and Obama­care? Im­pli­citly con­ced­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion dropped the ball on gov­ern­ing, you would earn back the pub­lic’s trust in gov­ern­ment be­fore launch­ing new ini­ti­at­ives. FDR did something like this be­fore launch­ing the New Deal. 

Pope Fran­cis has re­minded us of the power of small ges­tures. Without chan­ging the Vat­ic­an’s ideo­logy one iota, he has trans­formed the way people think about the Cath­ol­ic Church, one sym­bol­ic act at a time. And con­sider the par­al­lels between your job and that of the pope, an old man run­ning an an­cient in­sti­tu­tion marred by scan­dal and in­com­pet­ence. You can be just as trans­form­at­ive. Ac­tu­ally, if you run for pres­id­ent, you must be. That’s what a few of us think.

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