First of all, I hate these “10 things” diatribes, and I especially hate the presumption that 18 months out from an election anyone should be so arrogant as to claim the answers were apparent. Yet, I find myself having the overwhelming urge to do just that – mainly as an exercise that tests both what might be the conventional wisdom and what might be a bit outside the box. So here goes: advice for Hillary Clinton.
First, this is very much about having a thick skin. If you think the past 20-plus years have been rough, “the vast right-wing conspiracy” was just getting started. If you think the Swift Boat crowd was outrageous and way over the top, that was softball compared to what you will be experiencing. If you think that all those Fox News characters saying nice things about you and Bill was anything other than their way of eviscerating President Barack Obama, fasten your seat belt.
Point is, they want to generate a response from you. That is why there will be more books, more prodding of the press, more hounding your events, more orchestrated and persistent and personal attacks from third parties as well as the nearly two dozen so-called Republican candidates for president. Stay calm. Stay cool. Stay focused on what the American people care about. It will not be easy since much of this will focus on your family, on Bill, on Chelsea, on the work of the Clinton Foundation, on trying to tear you down as a person – your motivations, your personality, your very essence.
But here is the key: Even as you fail to respond to most of these inane attacks, you need a “truth squad” that sorts through the slings and arrows and makes careful, reasoned decisions on countering the ones that need to be countered. Not just in the eight-second back-and-forth nonsense of gladiator cable TV but in serious, fact-based rebuttals that a responsible press can digest and the public will understand.
Nevertheless, bottom line, this cannot be a defensive campaign. You have the wind at your back, and the Republicans know it. The demographics benefit you tremendously in 2016. When Bill was elected in 1992, 87 percent of the voters were white, and the odds are that figure will be around 70 percent this time. The retrograde Republican Party is destined to nominate someone who will be backward-looking on gay rights, on immigration, on climate change, on women’s rights and civil rights, and on tax giveaways to the wealthy instead of helping everyday working people. Their personalities and platforms will appeal to a narrow portion of the electorate, not most Americans. A candidate cannot be anti-women, anti-black, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian, anti-gay, anti-young, anti-working families – and pro-1 percent – and win a presidential election.
So, as you began in Iowa and New Hampshire, the message must be about who understands the problems, the frustrations and the predicaments of most Americans. Who will make their lives better, who will fight for them, whose experience and history can be trusted to deliver the goods? Who believes in them and who has been, and will be, effective? As a Senator, you “co-sponsored legislation and engaged in advocacy efforts with nearly every conservative member,” according to the book “The Way to Win” by Mark Halperin and John Harris. Many of these Republican Senators had voted to impeach your husband.
So, as intense as the personal attacks will be, your job and the job of your campaign will be to stay on the offensive. Your platform is sound and, unfortunately for the Republicans, theirs is not. I would like to say there are some real substantive differences among the Republicans, but basically they are all cut from the same cloth. And they are all going even further right to win the nomination. This is your opportunity to make your views clear and to provide a solid and hard-hitting contrast to the Republicans.
If they are going to hit you personally for the next year-and-a-half, you can use that time to talk in clear, comparative terms about the country’s future, what you would do and what they would do. The Republican candidates are all in the same boat, not a moderate among them, so votes on the inheritance tax, supporting Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana, cutting education across the country, opposing increases in the minimum wage, opposing immigration reform and being anti-campaign finance reform are all easy comparisons.
Finally, in the upcoming forums and debates that you will have with other Democrats who are running for the nomination – and there will be at least three, I believe (Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley) – you can use that opportunity to draw a clear contrast with the Republicans. There will be widespread agreement among all of you about the train wreck that is this field of Republicans, and this is a great opportunity to draw the clear differences to strengthen your candidacy.
A version of the listening tour and meeting with voters in these early states will pay huge dividends and should be continued throughout the year. In the coming weeks and months, you can weave in the clear distinctions between you, the Democratic Party, and the Republican candidates and the Republican Party. The change in the Republican Party over the past three decades, especially the past decade, has turned people away. It is increasingly becoming a very small tent, especially as America’s tent has grown bigger. This is not your grandmother’s Republican Party anymore. And that message can be personalized to any one of the Republicans running this year.
This is truly a marathon, and the ups and downs will probably be more intense than almost any presidential campaign in history. But voters respect resilience, appreciate strength and admire leaders who come through the fire. There will be plenty of fire, but you will be the better for it.