Hillary Clinton's Achilles' heel, and how she hopes to fix it.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 27 2007 9:33 AM

Hillary's Achilles' Heel

Is Sen. Clinton warm enough to win?

This is the second  in a series of articles about each presidential candidate's Achilles' heel. A companion video to this story appears on Slate V.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Robert Menendez

Somewhere a Republican hatchet-man is moping. He was going to make Hillary Clinton the star of a Sopranos video parody, but her campaign beat him to it. And instead of portraying her as a ruthless mob boss, the campaign managed to make her come across as campy and whimsical. The video spoofs the mafia drama's final scene in every particular, including its abrupt surprise ending. The unspoken message of the two clips is also the same: They're just like us. David Chase made the Sopranos look like a regular family even with a patriarch skilled in dismemberment. The Clinton video is trying to show that the former first lady has a regular side, even though her enemies have spent the last couple of decades portraying the Clintons as something just short of killers (and in some cases just that).

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

You might think that as a woman and a Democrat, Hillary Clinton's biggest challenge would be proving that she's tough enough to handle the presidency. So why is she play-acting and inviting the itchy parallels between the Sopranos' marriage and her own? Because Clinton's problem is not her qualifications. Democrats consistently tell pollsters that the senator has far more experience and leadership skill than her primary opponents. A Fox poll from early June showed that all voters—and the crucial subgroup of independents—thought she would be a stronger leader than John McCain. "It's kind of cool that she's doing so well on all the guy attributes," says one of the female leaders in her campaign. Where Clinton doesn't do well is on the "softer" set of attributes—trust, likability, and the feeling that she's "just like us"—that help voters form a personal connection with a candidate. The Sopranos video is just one of the many ways Clinton's campaign is trying to solve the central dilemma of her campaign: Is she too polarizing to get elected? Let's consider the evidence on both sides.

According to the latest Gallup poll, 50 percent of the country has an unfavorable view of Sen. Clinton. Neither John Kerry nor Al Gore achieved such a high negative rating in the Gallup poll during their failed presidential bids. In other polls, her unfavorable ratings are as much as 12 points higher than those of any other candidate running in either party. Favorability is an imperfect measure of voters' fondness, because it also captures the way voters think about policy positions, but in surveys that ask specifically about likability, she does horribly. This dim view is confirmed in less-scientific focus groups—and in my notebooks, which are filled with interviews with Democrats, some of whom support her, who express doubts about her electability without any prompting.

The Clinton candidacy poses a fascinating question for the ongoing debate among political scientists over whether emotion or reason drives voters. Many Democrats still debate whether in 2004 they should have picked Howard Dean, the flawed candidate who thrilled people, rather than John Kerry, who was stable, sensible, and safe. As Bill Clinton has said, Democrats prefer to fall in love with their candidates and Republicans fall in line. But now his wife is the fall-in-line candidate—the front-runner with the résumé, discipline, and organization. Barack Obama is clearly the candidate of the heart.

No doubt, in a perfect world, voters would determine their vote after careful research of candidate position papers and voting records, but there is overpowering evidence that voters choose candidates for emotional reasons. Even voters who like Hillary personally nevertheless worry she would be a turnout machine for otherwise dispirited Republicans in the general election. If the GOP attack machine could savage John Kerry's war record in 2004, just think what they could do with her. Male voters might have a gut-level aversion to a female candidate that can't be changed no matter what she does. Clinton can be easily portrayed as cold, calculating, and ruthless, and that's not a problem that can be easily fixed. A candidate can give endless policy speeches to address worries about her command of the issues. It's practically impossible for an unliked candidate to show a softer side without it looking fake.

The question of Clinton's likability surely has a lot to do with her gender. She's penalized for not meeting some abstract notion of womanhood, and for showing discipline, ambition, and toughness that would be celebrated in a man. (Even a sister can take advantage of this. Michelle Obama tweaked Hillary's oft-stated claim that she's "in it to win," saying: "This race is not about winning, because winning isn't enough nowadays. Winning without dignity, winning it without honor, winning without authenticity and truth is not winning at all, and we're not in it for that.")

At the other end of the spectrum, some women who consider themselves feminists dislike Clinton for not being enough of one. Even for men, campaign coverage has always had an element of gender stereotyping. John Edwards cares too much about his looks. Twenty years ago, Newsweek put George Bush on its cover with the line that openly questioned his manhood: "Fighting the Wimp Factor."

But Clinton's gender is not the only thing contributing to her negatives. Though Bill Clinton has good approval ratings and is an asset among Democrats, Hillary suffers a hangover from his tenure. Republicans hate her for his sins, as we know, but so do a vocal number of Democratic activists. They believe she shares his excessive political calculation  (subscription required). President Hillary would be more concerned with keeping her corporate backers happy than advancing women's rights, fixing health care, or improving life for the middle class. Her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq and refusal to admit that it was a mistake makes these voters boo her at rallies. Her annoying talent for parsing is one that voters find distasteful in politicians of any gender.

To improve Clinton's connection with voters, her aides are pursuing a two-track strategy that might seem at odds with itself: They downplay the problem while at the same time working very hard to solve it. Clinton's top strategist, Mark Penn, insists voters don't pick their president like "candidates on American Idol. They pick them based on how they'll be as president." That said, did you see her on The View? Or maybe you saw Iowa voters talking about her warmth. How about New Hampshire? Or the Bill Clinton video? Maya Angelou? In this video she kinda dances. Even officially calling herself Hillary softens Sen. Clinton. (Men do this too: Remember Lamar!)

The campaign will work to provide more opportunities for Clinton to show her softer side. An army of anecdotes may also be employed. She, or her surrogates, will talk about how she played pinochle on the cabin porch as a young girl, spent a summer sliming fish in Alaska, and worked for years as an advocate for children. Her loyal core of staffers, many of them women, are anxious to attest to her endearing behavior at wedding showers and late-night gossip sessions. At some point, sheer tonnage of people attesting to Clinton's humanity may convince voters. That many people couldn't fake it. The strategy is most likely to continue building Clinton's strength among women, a crucial bloc in the Democratic Party with whom she is deeply popular.

Will any of this solve Clinton's problem? Maybe a little, but every attempt to make Clinton appear more real can backfire and reinforce the very image it hopes to fix. Clinton's forced early Web videos, in which she offered voters a chance to engage in a "conversation" with her, were so inauthentic in their determined effort to show authenticity they were used in the famous guerilla attack video in which she played Big Brother in the parody of an Apple Macintosh ad based on George Orwell's 1984.

Clinton's hard work and hustle will lure voters more than the efforts to humanize her. That's what worked so well for her in her first Senate race, says Bill Dal Col, the campaign manager of Clinton's Republican opponent in the 2000. "She grew on people," he says of her famous "listening tour" in which she traveled around the state. Because of GOP efforts, New Yorkers expected her to be an "empress. [That] she would walk in, and it would be handed to her. Then they saw, oh wow, she really does want this. This isn't a show. That comes through. People were surprised."

The best evidence that Clinton can overcome her past may be that despite living in Washington for the last 14 years and competing against Barack Obama, who is the walking embodiment of freshness, Democratic voters nevertheless view Clinton as the candidate of change. That's a nifty trick, and it didn't happen because she produced a snappy Web video.

There is a lot of Clinton baggage, and though two recent biographies don't appear to have caused any big problems for the campaign, there is a lot of material for her opponents and enemies to use against her. But if there was ever an election where voters should care less about a candidate's softer qualities, this should be the one. Seventy percent of the public thinks the country is going in the wrong direction, and America is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A country starving for competence after the Bush presidency could easily embrace a candidate who always shows up thoroughly prepared. In the polls where Clinton tanks on the likability questions, she still comes out ahead among Democrats and still beats potential GOP rivals among all voters. After the last Democratic debate in early June, voters didn't find Clinton any more huggable, but in one focus group her favorability increased by 21 points over the course of the two-hour forum. All her supporters may not love her, but they respect her, and that matters more.