The biggest task for the Democrats this week is both simple and hard: They need to make voters more excited about Hillary Clinton as a person and a leader.
This task may seem superficial, given the stakes of the presidency. Many Democrats no doubt wish that the election could instead be a referendum on the two parties’ policies. But politics has always involved emotion. Voters want to like their president.
Democrats obviously cannot rewrite Clinton’s biography. She has been in the national political spotlight for too long – 24 years, arguably longer than any nominee since James Madison – and too many people view her negatively. But the Democrats can still make progress. They can appeal to swing voters and disaffected liberals who will never love Clinton but can come at least to admire major parts of her personality and life.
The best model is George H.W. Bush in 1988, who arrived at the Republican convention in New Orleans with some broadly similar weaknesses—- and who also had the tricky task of winning a third straight term for his party. As the sitting vice president to a dynamic president and the son of a former senator, Bush could not claim to have followed the classic self-made American story. Many people also didn’t like him very much. The year before, Newsweek greeted his campaign with a cover story titled, “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’ ”
And although Bush had a lower disapproval rating than Clinton now does, he suffered from a bigger problem: When the convention began, he trailedMichael Dukakis in the polls by almost 20 percentage points.
Today, we mostly remember that New Orleans convention for the flawed selection of Dan Quayle as vice president and for a booby trap Bush set for himself: “Read my lips: No new taxes.” But in real time, the convention was a major achievement. Bush came across as a happy warrior reveling in the campaign, both self-aware and confident.
The lessons for Clinton are clear: Bush repeatedly hammered the Democrats for the economic mess they had left eight years earlier, often with humor. He chided his opponents for their gloomy talk of an America in decline and cast himself as the optimist. Ever so gingerly, he signaled that he understood voters’ concerns about Ronald Reagan and promised to be a healer of divisions.
More personally, Bush linked his life story to the American story, acknowledging his privileged background but also talking about his war service and his move to Texas to start a new life. And he poked fun at himself, even seeming to have fun while doing so. “I’ll try to be fair to the other side,” he said early in his acceptance speech. “I’ll try to hold my charisma in check.”
Clinton, famous as she is, has her own version of lesser-known life stories – stories that, like Bush’s, can connect her atypical life to the more typical lives of voters. Her mother and chief mentor, Dorothy Rodham, offers the most promising tale of progress over adversity. As a girl, she suffered through family alcoholism and violence and had to work as a housekeeper at age 14 during the Depression. As an adult, she raised a daughter who has spent much of her life fightingforthedisadvantaged and who may become the country’s first female president.
Hillary Clinton cannot make voters forget her weaknesses, any more than Bush could pretend to have a common touch or Reaganesque charm. As her critics might put it, not without some cause, she has a sordid marital history, a fondness for “buckraking” and a willingness to skirt ethical lines for her own short-term benefit.
But self-deprecation is a powerful tool, and she can show voters that she is well aware of (at least some of) her imperfections. She can also make sure the convention highlights her strengths, including her very American ability to persevere through tough times and keep fighting.
After the Republican chaos in Cleveland, Democrats – and their nominee in particular – may be tempted to present a sober convention full of serious policy prescriptions. If they’re smart, they’ll keep the details of those prescriptions mostly out of prime time. Their convention will be a success if it appeals to the heart more than the head.
David Leonhardt, who will begin an Op-Ed column later this year, is writing a daily Opinion post during the conventions.
Our attractions can have an eat-your-vegetables feel…Maybe that sounds familiar to a woman who’s been characterized as an eat-your-vegetables kind of candidate, more dogged than dazzling, stuck between the poles of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.