A clever politician

As Hillary Clinton moves towards the center, media commentators call it clever positioning . . . I am not so sure

Dateline 02 December 2005

In 1978 George W Bush ran for Congress and lost. It was to be the only losing election of his career, and he learnt from it. His opponent had painted him as an overeducated, privileged, outsider with little knowledge of Texas.

None of what his opponent – a Democrat who subsequently became a Republican – said was strictly untrue. Bush was born in Connecticut, though he moved to Texas as a toddler. He has degrees from Yale and Harvard. His father is very rich and had, by 1978, already served in Congress, in several cabinet positions, and as Chairman of the Republican National Committee. His grandfather had been a US Senator, for Connecticut, and also very rich.

By the time he ran for Governor of Texas he had a very different image. Sure, the privileged upbringing kept coming up, but by now people were not really talking about him as overeducated. Instead people kept calling him stupid. It seemed alright by him, and he never responded by waving those certificates from Yale and Harvard. His two Presidential opponents also called him dumb. He could easily have pointed out that he has a superior academic record to either of them, but never mentioned it. The fact is the ‘ordinary guy’ image is more popular than painting yourself as a political boffin from a highly political family.

This is why I am not at all convinced that Hillary Clinton is being smart. By moving herself to the center she encourages journalists to say what a clever politician she is. People see every statement from her as positioning her for the election to come, but people thought of as clever politicians rarely garner much affection. John McCain’s battlebus from the 2000 campaign was called the ‘straight talk express’ not the ‘clever politician’s express’.

Nobody describes John McCain’s image as an independent minded maverick as being a clever act. Nobody says of Rudi Giuliani “liberal social policy and tough on crime and budgets, what a clever positioning”. Voters and commentators alike tend to assume that these people are genuine.

Even Hillary’s husband – one of the slickest political operators of recent times – painted himself as ‘the comeback kid’ after New Hampshire. It was his opponents who called him ‘Slick Willie’.

Being thought of as a clever politician is not a great place to be. Voters are not seeking a clever act, they are seeking sincerity.

I am not suggesting that Hillary is insincere. I genuinely don’t know. What I am saying is that people think she’s insincere, and that this is a problem for her career.

I am also not suggesting that McCain and Giuliani are necessarily more sincere. Being a maverick is certainly a clever position to adopt, whether it is genuine or not. I am only commenting on whether the market positioning will work. I don’t think Hillary’s will.

Ronald Reagan portrayed himself as an easy-going guy who felt called to do something about all those slick operators in Washington. He would rather have stayed in California to ride his horses, but he was worried about his country, so he felt the need to act. Nobody thought of him as slick or ambitious, that’s why they liked him.

So when you hear people saying that Hillary is a clever politician, they are saying it precisely because she is not.

Sincerity, Churchill once said, is the key to politics. Fake that and you can fake anything. Hillary can’t fake it.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 02 December 2005

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