Hillary Clinton’s first big campaign speech: A tough mother is the Democratic front-runner’s emerging campaign theme.

Hillary Clinton’s Emerging Campaign Message: One Tough Mother

Hillary Clinton’s Emerging Campaign Message: One Tough Mother

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June 12 2015 12:55 PM

One Tough Mother

Hillary Clinton’s campaign is going to sell her as a fighter like no other.

Hillary mobilize.
Tough love: Hillary Clinton speaks at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on May 5, 2015.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Tough mother. That’s both the theme of Hillary Clinton’s big speech on Saturday and the emerging theme of her campaign. According to a preview of her remarks, Clinton will talk about her mother’s struggles and how they guide her and her campaign, which the candidate has fashioned around four tough fights. Since announcing her campaign in April, at every stop Clinton has said she will advocate for families, remove money from politics, increase wages for the middle class, and protect America. How is she going to do these things? She’s going to fight.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

The speech, like all campaign speeches, is an attempt to define the terms of the election in a way that highlights the candidate’s attributes. (My presidential campaign, for example, would be founded on the obvious truth that the American dream can only be restored through asides and rejoinders made by blond, middle-aged fathers.) If Clinton is a scrappy fighter, why not define the election that way? It’s not a stretch. This is what voters talk about when they describe what they want in a candidate. Does the candidate get my life and will she go to bat for me? Does she have my back? Political scientists will tell you that if voters forge that kind of connection with a candidate, they will then project all kinds of other favorable qualities on that person. 

Clinton’s strategy is one her husband often employed. No matter what personal or political troubles Bill Clinton found himself in, he always presented himself as a tireless fighter, someone who’d go into pitched battle for voters. The blunt political calculation is that even if voters don’t find Hillary Clinton trustworthy—and only 42 percent do in a recent CNN poll—they will support the person who they think will fight for their interests. As Ron Brownstein has argued, Hillary Clinton doesn’t need Americans to trust her

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Fight, fight, fight. Clinton rarely misses an opportunity to raise her gloves, even when she is making a joke about something else. “I’m aware I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” Clinton told Democrats in South Carolina in May. “But I have one big advantage: I’ve been coloring my hair for years. You’re not going to see me turn white in the White House. And you’re also not going to see me shrink from a fight.” Friday the campaign released a Web video titled “Fighter.” (If by now you haven’t gotten the message, the candidate may have to come over and beat you up.)

There are other reasons the tough-mother pitch makes sense for Clinton. It establishes her genuine roots, which shows voters she is not distant from their concerns despite her newfound wealth. Bill Clinton did a version of this at the 1992 Democratic convention when the film The Man from Hope (a story also centered around a mother) helped upend the idea some voters had that he was a child of privilege. The message also allows Clinton to talk about her start in politics, which was founded around the kinds of fights she says she will wage now. She is not a newcomer to the fight for programs that help children and families. That display of continuity will help a candidate whose positions on aspects of immigration reform and same-sex marriage have changed since the last time she ran. 

Clinton’s framing speech comes after a week of conversation—kicked off by a New York Times analysis—about whether Clinton is going to run to the left at the expense of voters in the middle or run a more centrist campaign. The Clinton team argues it’s a false choice. She can appeal to Democrats by talking about immigration reform, campaign finance reform, and same-sex marriage while appealing to the majority of independent and swing voters who hold those views, too. “It is a uniquely Acela corridor analysis to assume issues like paid medical leave or addressing corporate excess are ‘base’ issues,” says David Axelrod, who is not associated with the Clinton campaign. “The economic pressures people feel are real and broad.”

On an issue like immigration, for example, a recent Pew poll showed that 72 percent of the public favors some legal status for undocumented workers, a position that is closer to Clinton’s than the one held by the majority of GOP candidates. 

The Clinton team also argues that swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Iowa can’t be won simply by turning out the Democratic base. Clinton is pushing for criminal justice reform, and so are several Republican candidates. She talks about the economic tilt toward Wall Street, and so does Rick Perry. Americans supported more government action to address the country’s growing income gap by 57 percent to 39 percent in a recent CBS/New York Times poll. When she talks about portability of health care across state lines, she is consciously echoing a Republican position. If she were making a big pitch for the party’s liberal wing, she would be advocating for a single-payer health care system as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander is.

If anyone would like a preview of Clinton’s mother-based speech, watch this recording of her appearance before thousands of camp counselors in March. At roughly the 52-minute mark, she gives a long answer about her mother’s qualities. One story she tells is of her mother’s advice after Clinton came home crying after being bullied: “There’s no room for cowards in this house.” That’s one tough mother.