Hillary Clinton’s new memoir has been called “boring” and “vanilla” by friendly mainstream pundits. Her speech last month to the American Jewish Committee was likewise panned by friendly Democrats as a cure for insomnia. It is fair to ask whether Hillary Clinton really is boring or whether she is using boredom as a tactic.
In 2008, she had her share of big crowds and generated a fair amount of excitement among her supporters. But she had the misfortune to run against Barack Obama, whom the media played up as a rock star, thrilling to every utterance. Running as the “experience” candidate didn’t help her excitement quotient, certainly.
Both in 2008 and 2012 as a surrogate in the general election for President Obama, she was not the most scintillating figure. That honor went to her husband, former president Bill Clinton, who for all his faults is one of the most adept, engaging public speakers in recent memory. He manages to combine policy minutiae with good-natured barbs at Republicans in a style that even when scripted sounds off-the-cuff. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s set speeches tend to be staid, predictable and moderate-sounding (even when invoking very liberal policies). But exciting? Not really.
Clinton generates excitement among liberals, unsurprisingly, as a feminist icon and survivor. The buzz about her running is about her identity, not anything in particular she says or wants to do. In fact, she’s not articulated anything approaching a new policy idea since her ill-fated run in 2008.
In short, she’s not the most exciting speaker to come around, although in the media and Democratic base (much overlap, there) it hardly matters since she is running as yet another “first” in the identity politics wars.
But boredom — the art of taking a very long time to say nothing — can also be a political ploy. It diffuses difficult questions (e.g. Why didn’t you keep an eye on the jihadi influx into Benghazi?) when the answer goes on for paragraphs, straying from the precise query and offering a high frequency of platitudes (Governing involves hard choices. Intelligence is never certain. Wow — you’d have thought?!). In front of a Jewish group, it’s best for her to drone on and on, repeating generalities about her commitment to Israel when the particulars in her record (e.g. bashing Israel in settlements, engaging the jihadist regime while trying to slow down sanctions) are so troublesome. Likewise, a boring book gives her opponents few juicy tidbits while providing her with the excuse that she has explained “everything” in her book.
The danger in saying nothing for a very long time about anything of real interest is that it becomes habitual (consider Secretary of State John F. Kerry). A presidential candidate trying not to make news also doesn’t engage voters who aren’t already fans. In an uncontested primary, turnout may dwindle and undecided voters drift over to the opponent’s primaries, perhaps becoming enamored of the other party. That is precisely why her supporters want competition — just not too much.
We’ve seen in the last few election cycles that without breaking a sweat, each party can get 45 to 48 percent of the vote. The race is decided by the remainder, and to some extent, the parties’ ability to turn out the vote. Clinton’s biggest challenges will be in finding something interesting to say and invigorating independent voters. Simply running as the ex-secretary of state or as the person offering the third Bill Clinton term isn’t very thrilling; nor does it tell voters what they really want to hear — what she is going to do differently for them in the future. That’s what the GOP nominee will be selling — a break with failed policies, an end to cronyism, a full-scale reform of the liberal welfare state. A candidate who never makes a “mistake” may also find the electorate nodding off.
In short, if she tries to run as the experience candidate in a change election. it’s not likely to come out any differently than when she tried it in 2008.