Hillary Clinton gave the first major speech of her presidential campaign on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and while it wasn’t quite as heavy on biography as the campaign had led reporters to believe in the past couple of days, it was probably a good preview of what Clinton’s entire campaign will be like: lots of policy talk, with just enough personal content to paint a portrait of a candidate who both advocates for regular people and is a regular person — or, to paraphrase something President Obama once said about her, is regular enough.
This speech, like much of what Clinton does now, is about creating a synthesis out of two related goals or ideas. She wants to energize liberals in a way that also wins independents. She wants to advocate an economic agenda that will be substantively compelling and also creates a personal affinity with voters. It’s Clinton’s good fortune that she has at least the opportunity to do both at the same time.
Presidential candidates come in two basic types: those who can tell a story of personal struggle and those who can tell their relatives’ story of personal struggle. For one of the first times, today Clinton told how her mother was abandoned by her own parents and started supporting herself as a teenager. The point of these stories is to tell people, “I’m just like you.” I understand your struggles and your challenges, and I’ll advocate on your behalf. The truth is that there’s absolutely no relationship between whether a candidate was rich as a child or is rich now and what kinds of policies she’ll pursue as president. But we can conceive of this relationship between the personal and political as a 2 x 2 array with one bad quadrant, one good quadrant and two that could go either way. Here’s my liberally biased version with an example for each, placing Hillary Clinton where she’s trying to place herself:
So FDR was a wealthy scion who championed the cause of the downtrodden, while Scott Walker came from modest circumstances but advocates the interests of the wealthy and corporations. Mitt Romney was a rich guy whom Americans came to believe cared only about rich people, a deadly combination. Clinton is someone who grew up middle-class and is now rich but who would prefer you think of her as a person just like you. Her policy case makes her personal case more persuasive, whereas someone like Walker has to deal with the tension between his personal story and the beneficiaries of his policies.
Of course, personal affinity isn’t all about economic class, and Clinton is obviously counting on women in particular to feel a bond with her and come out to vote. As she said in her speech, “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I’ll be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.” But while that may have been her biggest applause line, the speech was laden with policy talk, much of it about the economy.
And while some of the positions she mentioned have been more fully fleshed-out than others, what it added up to was an extremely progressive agenda: paid family leave, affordable college education, more infrastructure investments, renewable energy, universal preschool, expanding broadband access and a lot more — all of it wrapped in populist rhetoric (the part about 25 hedge fund managers making more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers seemed to hit a chord).
And I’d challenge Republicans to look at the policy proposals in the speech and say about any of them, “Oh boy, the general electorate isn’t going to go for that.” Which highlights one important way in which Clinton’s path to the White House is easier than that of her potential GOP opponents. They have multiple areas where the goals of winning over Republican primary voters and setting themselves up to assemble a general election coalition are at odds. They need to sound tough on immigration now, but that will hurt them with Hispanic voters next fall. They need to proclaim that the Affordable Care Act must be totally repealed, when most Americans would prefer to make it work better. They need to oppose things like paid leave, minimum wage increases and imposing restrictions on Wall Street bankers, all of which are extremely popular. And they need to do it all while arguing that they understand regular folks and will be their advocates.
Americans might or might not buy that Hillary Clinton is just like them. But the truth is that she could get elected even if most of them don’t, which is something the Republicans probably can’t say.