Clinton’s Convention Goal: A Clearer Message

Unlike Trump and Sanders, Clinton hasn’t laid out a simple road map of what she would do as president.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives to speak to volunteers at a Democratic party organizing event at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, N.C. on Monday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
July 25, 2016, 8 p.m.

PHIL­ADELPHIA—Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign is hop­ing to use the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion to rem­edy a prob­lem that’s plagued her cam­paign from the start—the lack of a crisp cent­ral mes­sage.

Clin­ton’s dec­ades in pub­lic life give her lots to talk about when it comes to her re­sume, in­clud­ing her re­cord, her ac­com­plish­ments, and her qual­i­fic­a­tions for the White House. And of course, she and her fel­low Demo­crats have heav­ily em­phas­ized the need to de­feat Don­ald Trump. But over the course of her cam­paign, the wonky former sec­ret­ary of State has struggled to ar­tic­u­late a clear road map of what she would do as pres­id­ent, par­tic­u­larly one groun­ded in an eas­ily di­gest­ible or mem­or­able set of policy pro­pos­als.

While some see the breadth and depth of Clin­ton’s policy ex­pert­ise as an as­set, it’s also bogged down her cam­paign. Clin­ton’s team is hope­ful that they can ce­ment a sharp­er mes­sage about her can­did­acy this week for the mil­lions of view­ers who will tune in to watch the con­ven­tion’s prime-time speeches. At a press brief­ing Monday morn­ing at the Pennsylvania Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, Clin­ton cam­paign man­ager Robby Mook said the week will show how “Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton has spent her en­tire life fight­ing for kids and fam­il­ies, fight­ing to provide op­por­tun­ity to those who are giv­en the least, and break­ing down bar­ri­ers to op­por­tun­ity.”

Through stor­ies de­livered by sur­rog­ates about Clin­ton’s ef­forts as first lady, sen­at­or from New York, and sec­ret­ary of State, Mook said he hopes the con­ven­tion “will crys­tal­ize for the voters the fights she’s taken on and the things she’s ac­com­plished to help people.”

On Monday, Clin­ton cam­paign chair­man John Podesta said Clin­ton’s mes­sage is: “That we’re stronger to­geth­er when we build an in­clus­ive eco­nomy that raises wages, and she’s got very spe­cif­ic plans to cre­ate jobs and raise wages and we’ll hear about that when she speaks Thursday night.”

Stephanie Schriock, the pres­id­ent of EMILY’s List, par­roted that tagline in a sep­ar­ate con­ver­sa­tion later Monday. “Hil­lary Clin­ton, and now Tim Kaine, is about hav­ing an eco­nomy that is for every­body and not just the top, and we’re ab­so­lutely stronger to­geth­er than the di­vis­ive and dan­ger­ous polit­ics and policies of the Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

Schriock ad­ded: “She’s go­ing to do everything to fight for wo­men and chil­dren to make sure people’s lives are bet­ter. That’s maybe not the fun­nest slo­gan, but it’s true to who she is and what she wants to do if she’s elec­ted pres­id­ent of the United States.”

The re­l­at­ively new Clin­ton tagline, “Stronger To­geth­er,” and the line about an eco­nomy that works for every­one, are sure to be re­peated over and over this week in Phil­adelphia. Clin­ton cycled through a hand­ful of slo­gans earli­er in the cam­paign that didn’t stick. She fo­cused on the “four fights” in her cam­paign launch in 2015, be­fore she was “Fight­ing for us” and a “pro­gress­ive who gets things done,” just to name a few.

Her cam­paign is now con­sist­ently us­ing the slo­gan “Stronger To­geth­er,” which she ad­op­ted shortly be­fore she locked up the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. The phrase sim­ul­tan­eously em­phas­izes the need for unity with­in a Demo­crat­ic Party split between her and her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as in a coun­try at-large wracked by ra­cial, re­li­gious, and eco­nom­ic di­vi­sions that Trump has sought to ex­ploit.

Run­ning against Trump, whom Demo­crats cast as too un­qual­i­fied and di­vis­ive to lead the coun­try, has helped Clin­ton define her can­did­acy, or at least get away with fo­cus­ing so heav­ily on her qual­i­fic­a­tions and broad themes rather than a clear mes­sage. Clin­ton’s will­ing­ness to draw on her pro­fes­sion­al and life ex­per­i­ences draws a con­trast with Trump, who rarely of­fers per­son­al an­ec­dotes or ex­plains how his world­view is de­rived from his own life ex­per­i­ences. Trump’s ac­cept­ance speech at the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion no­tice­ably lacked any kind of per­son­al nar­rat­ive.

Non­ethe­less, Trump and Sanders be­nefited from hav­ing clear, if con­tro­ver­sial, mes­sages and pro­pos­als. Sanders wanted free pub­lic col­lege and uni­ver­sal health care. Trump wants to build a wall on the Mex­ic­an bor­der and lim­it Muslim im­mig­ra­tion. Both men want to tear up trade deals.

Even now, not every Clin­ton back­er seems to have got­ten the memo about the new taglines. When asked to de­scribe Clin­ton’s mes­sage in a sen­tence or two in Phil­adelphia, sup­port­ers offered dif­fer­ent riffs on the same theme. “She wants to change Amer­ica and not man­age it. She wants to change the roles of the eco­nomy to work for work­ing people, so that every­body gets a break and every­body can thrive,” said AFL-CIO pres­id­ent Richard Trumka.

“Her main mes­sage is fair­ness and equal­ity. That’s what she’s about,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

Clin­ton seems to be aware of frus­tra­tion over her em­phas­is on policy de­tails over sim­pli­city or clar­ity. Her cam­paign web­site boasts of more than 30 in­di­vidu­al policy goals—in­clud­ing rais­ing the min­im­um wage, help­ing wo­men- and minor­ity-owned small busi­nesses, guar­an­tee­ing equal pay for wo­men, and mak­ing com­munity col­lege free— pro­pos­als that Clin­ton doesn’t hes­it­ate to tick through when she’s on the stump.

At a rally in Vir­gin­ia this month, Clin­ton said, “Every so of­ten, someone will write or say, ‘There goes Hil­lary Clin­ton with her plans. She has a plan for everything.’ But I didn’t know you could run for pres­id­ent and say ‘I have a plan but I won’t tell you, but be­lieve me it’s true. It’s huge. You’ll love it.”

“You owe it to people,” Clin­ton em­phas­ized, “to tell them what you want to do.”

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