The Conversation

Hillary's Authenticity Problem Could Cost Democrats the Election

A new conventional wisdom is forming which says Democrat's gaffes don't matter because they aren't connected to (bad) Republican policies. There's a grain of truth to this argument and yet it misses the big picture. Hillary's policy positions won't be able to save her from her own serious flaws as a candidate.

Progressive writer Brian Beutler explained why Romney's gaffe's mattered (and Hillary's didn't) this way:

Romney's weaknesses ran much deeper than tone-deaf asides about close friendships with NASCAR team owners, or a car elevator. His unfamiliarity with material deprivation was badly compounded by his devotion to an agenda (and a moral belief system) that would have people like him contributing less to the general welfare, and everyone else contributing more. That mapped neatly on to a basically correct, broader perception that the wealthy and powerful use their considerable influence above all else to help each other. Being a tribune for that class was Romney's real liability...

What Beutler is saying here is that gaffes only matters if they confirm something negative which people already believe about a candidate. That's why the car elevator attack worked and why the 47 percent video hit its mark. It confirmed what many already suspected about Romney. The Washington Post's Plum Line blog picked up this idea and made it even simpler. Paul Waldman wrote:

Even if most voters don’t have a detailed knowledge of her positions on issues like the minimum wage, safety net programs, or Wall Street regulations, they know that she’s a Democrat and therefore they assume that her positions are oriented toward the interests of ordinary people, just as if she were a Republican they’d assume that her positions were oriented toward the interests of the wealthy.

And there it is. To be a Democrat is, quite literally, to be given a pass. Many on the right often complain that it feels as if that's how things work with the media but rarely does the media come right out and say it.

Again, I think there is some truth to this. A gaffe is like a bolt of lightning hitting the political landscape. It strikes and does damage but only where it can effectively ground itself to the earth. Democrats are insulated from gaffes about wealth because they stand on policy grounds which purportedly seek to reduce wealth inequality. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney (and before him John McCain) were standing in a storm holding a lightning rod in the air, at least when it comes to this issue. That's the progressive viewpoint.

There is a vast overlooked part of this we're going to sidestep for now. That's the extent to which people's notions about candidates (or Democrats and Republicans in general) are formed by people like Beutler and Waldman and dozens more just like them. Romney's gaffes didn't ground themselves in reality so much as in a perception Democrats had tirelessly crafted it in their messaging sweatshops.

Putting that aside, there is still some truth in what Beutler and Waldman are saying. The impact of a gaffe is dependent on certain preconditions. It has to confirm something people already think could be true. Romney may have been a great believer in personal charity but it was not terribly hard to paint him as an out of touch plutocrat. That was Democrats' strategy from before the primaries began and it clearly worked.

But I think progressive writers are whistling past the graveyard here when it comes to Hillary Clinton. Here's why. Ultimately all of the gaffes about Romney's wealth were feeding a much simpler conception which people took with them into the voting booth. In the end, people believed that Barack Obama cared more about them than Romney did. That's the image that slowly sunk in and probably had a big impact both in 2008 and in 2012.

But in case no one else has noticed, Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama. She's also no Bill Clinton. She lacks their charm, to put it mildly. She has all of Bill's outsized self-regard with none of his charisma. She claims to share Barack Obama's empathy but often seems inauthentic when she does so, as if she is going through the motions hoping for a passing grade from friendly examiners.

It's not as if no one has noticed this before. Here's Politico from this morning, "Clinton is willing to pull back the curtain only so far. That guardedness can be tricky at a time when authenticity matters more than ever for politicians and faux authenticity isn’t enough. The interviews gave her a chance to test her comfort zone, but she’ll get pushed harder in the future."

To be blunt, Hillary often seems as false as a $3 bill. That's why the remark about being "dead broke" will hurt her. It's not because she's a tribune for her class, it's because she's as believable as a traveling snake oil salesman. And that goes for a lot of what she says about herself.

It's why Terry Gross kept pounding away at her with questions about her past support for gay rights. With Hillary you can keep peeling the onion but you'll never get to something that sounds like an honest, unscripted answer. It's a major problem for a candidate who needs the empathy vote to win.

That's also why the revelation that Hillary once defended a child rapist she knew was guilty could haunt her. It suggests that deep down there's not a lot of empathy to be found, not really. In discussing something which most people would find horrifying, Hillary comes across as a win-at-all-costs attorney. She certainly didn't seem to feel the victim's pain.

So granted, Hillary's not going to be perceived as Richie Rich, even though she is. But she does have a serious problem. Hillary lacks the one thing Democratic candidates absolutely need in order to win elections. Her empathy strikes nearly everyone as staged-managed and self-serving. Because of that, it won't be enough for her to enunciate the right policies. She tried doing that in 2008 and promptly lost to the relative unknown who people decided cared more.


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