Hillary Clinton, the McDonald’s candidate

On Monday night, Hillary Clinton participated in a chat with employees of Twitter that was streamed on the web. Like her Facebook chat earlier in the day, the questions Hillary answered were curated for her. But unlike the Facebook chat, Twitter offered Clinton other assurances.

Of the 11 questions she answered, one came from a "normal" Twitter user. Four came from Twitter employees; the others were from celebrity women. There was no press in the room. And she was interviewed by Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Twitter executive who once worked for Clinton at the State Department. The event was thoroughly corporate -- as personal, creative and insightful as a McDonald's ad. No way was Hillary Clinton going to inadvertently cross whatever invisible line would preclude her from being elected president.

Which is what, exactly? What is Hillary Clinton trying to do? Over the course of her reintroduction to America, spurred primarily by the launch of her book, "Hard Choices," Clinton has given a broad range of interviews, none of which offered her much of a challenge. Even famed dragon-slayer Jon Stewart didn't put up much of a fight, meekly reinforcing how much he loved Clinton's book and doing the are-you-running schtick for 20 minutes. Perhaps the most difficult interviewer she encountered was NPR's Terry Gross, who pressed Clinton repeatedly for an answer on gay marriage.


Clinton. (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)

She also stumbled over questions about her family's transition from Average-Joe White House residents to denizens of the upper crust, but as the New York Times' Lynn Vavreck noted, those comments gained traction in part thanks to the vacuum of an actual campaign. "People are not evaluating her for the party nomination; they are sizing her up as a president," Vavreck wrote last week. "They evaluate Mrs. Clinton on what they think life would be like under her presidency, but she’s actually giving them very little domestic policy information to go on." So they interpolate from what information is out there, and Hillary suffers.

There's a weird timidity to it. Clinton has repeatedly made clear that she is distrustful of the media, as was thoroughly documented by Politico's Glenn Thrush in May. Thrush's headline encompasses the point: "What Is Hillary Clinton Afraid Of?" This phase of Clinton's campaign is predicated on her time as secretary of state, which, in turn, is meant to reinforce her toughness and preparedness for the job of president.

Clinton's exchange with Gross was revelatory in many ways, not the least of which was that it seemed like an overreaction. Much has been made of the fact that her life since Jan. 20, 1993, has existed within bubbles of various densities -- the White House, the Senate, the State Department, and, for really only a few months, behind high walls in Chappaqua, N.Y. Or, more correctly, behind the tinted windows and pressurized portholes of limos and jets taking her to speaking gigs and to Clinton Global Initiative gatherings. Whatever tension arose when she was first lady, whatever disagreements emerged in Foggy Bottom, Clinton's world for the past two years has been one fueled by pleasantries.

It's a corporate world, both in the sense that those in power are treated largely with deference and access, and in the sense that institutions take great pains to keep the waters as still as possible. The analogy of a McDonald's ad above was intentional. The fast-food giant shoots right for a large target labelled "common denominator" in its ads, hitting a bullseye nearly every time. Everything is tested, checked and run past lawyers to avoid mistakes or misinterpretations that would cost money. This is the balance we see in Clinton: fear of minutiae while feeling completely comfortable in a position of authority.

When Clinton agreed to speak at the University at Buffalo last October, included in the deal was a lengthy rider stipulating that her speech should include "a presidential glass panel teleprompter and a qualified operator" and that she have final say over "sets, backdrops, banners, scenery, logos, settings, etc." Not atypical for a performer. Also not atypical as components of a complex legal document e-mailed out by the guys on the 22nd floor. And it had echoes elsewhere.

This is what people attending Clinton's first book signing in New York City were handed before they got a chance to meet the former senator. Again: Not uncommon for book signings, or, for that matter, presidential events. But try and imagine a scenario in which something spontaneous occurs within these constraints. It would be as tricky as finding an unexpected argument or defense in "Hard Choices."

Hillary Clinton has 1.2 million followers on Twitter. She tweeted out a link to the livestream of her chat with the company on Monday afternoon, her sixth tweet this month. Shortly after it began, BuzzFeed's Ben Smith noted that only 550 had tuned in; when I joined shortly afterward, it was at about 750. Everyone missed hearing Clinton respond to Malala about the importance of female leaders and missed when she demurred from answering soccer star Julie Foudy's question about who she might choose as her VP.

At this point, Clinton is the McDonald's of the Democratic field: ahead of the competition and not willing to make any mistakes. But who tunes in to watch a McDonald's ad?

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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