Hillary Clinton certainly wasn’t expecting a tough go of it when she hit the road on her book tour. After all, her book was devoid of controversy — not to mention new or interesting material — so there wouldn’t be much fodder for the interviewers, right? And besides, her popularity as secretary of state was high and she has come to personify for liberal women (many of those interviewing her) a valiant fighter. Her competence? Beyond question! Her devotion to the little people? Beyond measure!
But things didn’t pan out as Clinton expected, to put it mildly. She has nothing much to say, certainly nothing new, so focus falls on her foreign policy stumbles and her curious obsession with stuffing her bank account. She is in a defensive crouch before she formally announces her presidential run.
Some suspect that Clinton doesn’t want to run but has had to keep up pretenses to sell books and cash in on speaking gigs. These are not so lucrative if you are merely the former secretary of state and not a possible future president. But Clinton certainly didn’t want to bomb on this tour, nor throw away whatever good will she accrued in office. No, this seems to be a situation where her ambitions outstrip her abilities.
For those who are considering a run, the lessons are clear:
1. If you don’t have something new to say, the conversation will be about things you don’t want to talk about. Clinton has not advanced a single presidential-level agenda item nor uttered a single original thought (other than that multimillionaires are not “truly well-off”). The media are obliged to make news and will find some way to grab viewers and readers.
2. There are no guaranteed easy interviews anymore. This is especially true when every outlet is trying to best the others with the same interviewee. Even NPR is obliged to bear down on Clinton.
3. If you haven’t been in elected office in a long time or if you’ve not run for president, the level of scrutiny will take you by surprise. In 2012, Texas Gov. Rick Perry thought he was ready; he wasn’t (even he now acknowledges). Hillary Clinton could do interviews in her sleep as secretary of state; she wasn’t ready, either.
4. To be ready, you have to have staff and friends willing to practice tough love. They have to grill the candidate on the tough issues, be ready to annoy the boss by reminding her of unpleasant baggage and feel obliged to give honest reviews. If not, even rotten reviews and an ongoing, horrendous storyline (“rich Hillary”) don’t pierce the bubble and no course adjustment is made. The worst part is having a very experienced political spouse who is incredibly defensive and considers all criticism to be unjust.
6. What difference do facts make? A lot, it turns out. The Clintons have become so expert at posturing, spin and self-promotion that they have come to believe they can sell just about anything to the public. But when confronted with a flurry of events that contradict the Clinton narrative (hey, Russian reset was a joke, al-Qaeda isn’t dead) that can’t be spun, they falter — or at least she does. She doesn’t have the political dexterity that her husband has, so she resorts to clumsy fabrications (We had to get out of Iraq. Maybe the video did set off the Benghazi attack). These statements, in the 24/7 media environment with thousands of fact-checkers a click away from incriminating information, only get her tangled in a web of half-truths and out-and-out falsehoods.
7. If the incumbent president is faltering, you have to put distance between yourself and the sinking ship. Clinton, perhaps fearing the reaction of the base, has refused to do so. She pays a steep price for defending a slew of foreign policy blunders.
8. You have to know when to get off TV. President Obama has been the most overexposed president in history. He pops up at practically every major sporting event, inundates non-news media and constantly takes to the road to pummel his opponents. Likewise, Clinton has been on TV or radio or in some other news-making venue for a couple of weeks straight. People soon tire of you and begin to look for newer and more engaging characters. Eventually they tune you out altogether.
9. You have to want to be president to do something. Becoming president because you can is not enough. Being famous, having held every other job and having a donor list a mile long have not been a recipe for success. (Ted Kennedy and Al Gore are prime examples.) You have to be not only likable and comfortable in your skin but also have a rationale for your candidacy. Being Hillary — or Ted, or Al — isn’t sufficient.
10. Wealth is a tricky thing. Americans admire success and have voted for truly well-off presidents like FDR and JFK, but wealth makes you an easy target. Unless you have some other accessible story (an immigrant, overcoming financial hardship) or endearing personal quality, you become readily caricatured, especially if you’re not all that comfortable being wealthy. (See Mitt Romney and the struggle to release his taxes.) Maybe “old money” that sloshes around in political families is less burdensome than the millions made by the candidate himself or herself — be it as a turnaround specialist or an overpaid speaker. That’s especially true if the money race is still going on.
Hillary Clinton has done much, much worse than anyone expected in her pre-campaign tour. But the factors that undermined her and the mistakes that she made are not unique to her. Other candidates should study her blunders and make sure not to copy them. Otherwise, they, too, will find their approval ratings sinking like a stone and their shortcomings fodder for the late-night talk shows.