Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Need Americans to Trust Her

Following Bill’s political playbook could work for Hillary—but only if she uses the whole thing.

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Ronald Brownstein
May 6, 2015, 4 p.m.

For all those con­vinced that the seri­al al­leg­a­tions of eth­ic­al im­pro­pri­ety swirl­ing around Hil­lary Clin­ton will punc­ture her pro­spects of win­ning the pres­id­ency next year, there’s a rel­ev­ant pre­ced­ent to con­sider: On the day Bill Clin­ton was reelec­ted by more than eight mil­lion votes in 1996, a sol­id 54 per­cent ma­jor­ity of voters said in exit polling that they did not con­sider him hon­est and trust­worthy.

It’s pos­sible that voters have since grown less tol­er­ant of per­ceived eth­ic­al mis­steps, such as the ques­tions Hil­lary Clin­ton is fa­cing over her private State De­part­ment email ac­count and the Clin­ton Found­a­tion’s fund-rais­ing prac­tices. But it’s more likely that em­pathy, faith in her com­pet­ency, and ideo­lo­gic­al com­pat­ib­il­ity will count more than in­teg­rity in shap­ing voters’ ver­dict on Hil­lary Clin­ton—just as they did for her hus­band.

Few pres­id­ents ever faced as many dis­tinct eth­ic­al al­leg­a­tions from their op­pon­ents and the press as Bill Clin­ton did dur­ing his two terms. Those charges cre­ated per­sist­ently high doubts about his hon­esty and mor­al­ity. But none of them pro­duced a fatal wound.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton Just Told Im­mig­ra­tion Act­iv­ists What They Wanted to Hear)

Many factors al­lowed Clin­ton to sur­vive ques­tions about his char­ac­ter: sat­is­fac­tion with over­all peace and prosper­ity, re­spect for his skill and ef­fect­ive­ness, and dis­taste for crit­ics who re­peatedly seemed to over­reach. But his most im­port­ant shield may have been the be­lief that he un­der­stood, and genu­inely hoped to ameli­or­ate, the prob­lems of or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans. For Hil­lary Clin­ton, it’s prob­ably more im­port­ant to match his strength on that front than to im­prove on the weak per­cep­tions of his char­ac­ter. And that’s something she has not yet done.

The exit poll con­duc­ted the day Bill Clin­ton won reelec­tion in 1996 cap­tured the con­sist­ently con­flic­ted Amer­ic­an as­sess­ment of him, and of­fers clues about how the coun­try may weigh its sim­il­arly am­bi­val­ent feel­ings about his wife. Clin­ton dis­patched Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Bob Dole that day by a sol­id 49-41 mar­gin. Yet in the sur­vey, 60 per­cent of voters said they did not be­lieve Clin­ton had told the truth about the con­tro­ver­sial “White­wa­ter” in­vest­ment in Arkan­sas, and just 41 per­cent said they con­sidered him hon­est and trust­worthy (far less than the 54 per­cent who did not.)

Those doubts cost Clin­ton some, par­tic­u­larly with in­de­pend­ents. But ac­cord­ing to the exit poll, Clin­ton won nearly one-fifth of those voters who did not con­sider him trust­worthy and al­most one-fourth who doubted him on White­wa­ter. How did Clin­ton at­tract so many voters du­bi­ous about his char­ac­ter? The an­swer is that they placed high­er pri­or­ity on oth­er as­sess­ments of him. Al­most three-fifths of voters said is­sues mattered to them more than char­ac­ter—and they backed Clin­ton by more than a 3-1 mar­gin. And while Dole won by more than 10-1 among those who said hon­esty most in­flu­enced their vote, that group rep­res­en­ted just one-fifth of the elect­or­ate. Clin­ton amassed sim­il­arly lop­sided mar­gins among the com­bined 35 per­cent of voters who said their de­cision was most in­flu­enced by the can­did­ate’s vis­ion for the fu­ture, be­ing in touch, and caring about people like me.

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Cam­paign De­clares War Against ‘Clin­ton Cash’)

A sim­il­ar dy­nam­ic sus­tained Clin­ton through his im­peach­ment or­deal two years later. Pub­lic doubts about Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter skyrock­eted after his af­fair with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky was re­vealed. But as Stan­ford Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Richard Brody wrote then, “the pub­lic’s view of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s com­pas­sion and strength of lead­er­ship” ac­tu­ally im­proved through the tu­mult. The share of Amer­ic­ans say­ing Clin­ton “un­der­stands the prob­lems of people like you” rose to about 60 per­cent in ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post polls through 1998. Most Amer­ic­ans, in oth­er words, seemed will­ing to look past Clin­ton’s flaws so long as they felt he was look­ing out for their in­terests—and cap­able of ad­van­cing them.

Today, Hil­lary Clin­ton is stronger on the second part of that equa­tion than the first. Since the 2008 Demo­crat­ic primary, she has scored well as a strong and de­cis­ive lead­er. But Amer­ic­ans have con­sist­ently giv­en her more equi­voc­al grades for em­pathy. When the ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post poll last asked in March wheth­er Hil­lary Clin­ton “un­der­stood the prob­lems of people like you,” just 47 per­cent said yes, far few­er than for her hus­band even dur­ing im­peach­ment. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll, a com­par­able 43 per­cent de­scribed her as “com­pas­sion­ate enough to un­der­stand av­er­age people.”

Few­er Amer­ic­ans may view Hil­lary than Bill Clin­ton (at least in his hey­day) as em­path­et­ic partly be­cause she, like most politi­cians, can’t match his unique abil­ity to con­vince voters he could “feel your pain.” She may also suf­fer be­cause the al­leg­a­tions con­front­ing the Clin­tons now in­clude charges that they have used their con­tacts to en­rich them­selves, or be­cause Amer­ic­ans have seen her in power­ful po­s­i­tions for so long they can’t eas­ily ima­gine her re­lat­ing to their struggles. (It didn’t help when she ac­know­ledged she has not driv­en a car since 1996, or when he sug­ges­ted he needs six-fig­ure speeches to “pay our bills.”)

Whatever the cause, it’s al­most cer­tainly more im­port­ant for Hil­lary Clin­ton to per­suade Amer­ic­ans that she un­der­stands their lives, and has solu­tions rel­ev­ant to their chal­lenges, than to dis­pel the doubts about her in­teg­rity. Bill Clin­ton’s ex­per­i­ence sug­gests that if Amer­ic­ans be­lieve she can walk in their shoes, they will ac­cept plenty of mud on her own.

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