Stillwater News Press

Opinion

June 12, 2014

STEVE AND COKIE ROBERTS: Hillary faces warmth gap

STILLWATER, Okla. — As Hillary Clinton prepares to run for president, she should remember the words of her husband's campaign theme song in 1992: “Don't Stop” by Fleetwood Mac. As Bill Clinton knew very well,  politics is always about the future, not the past. Yesterday's gone.

Hillary Clinton's new book, “Hard Choices,” is a detailed account of her years as secretary of state. But it tells voters little about the questions that concern them the most: Who is she, really? Does she understand their lives? How will she make them better?

Remember, Clinton has run for president before and lost. In 2008, she struggled to find the words and stories that connected with voters on an emotional level. She lost to Barack Obama, who deeply understood the power of stories and told them very well.

Clinton's book focuses on policies – toward Russia and China, Syria and Iraq. And of course “that's important.”

But it's not how most voters choose a president. They want to gauge her tone and temperament, her character and values. And Hillary Clinton has always faced a warmth gap.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll just before the 2008 campaign tried to measure this gap. Fifty-three percent gave her positive marks on “experience and competence,” but her rating fell to 44 percent on “values and character” and 39 percent on “warmth and compassion.”

Likability alone is not enough, however. It has to be combined with the quality mentioned by Obama: the ability to convey “a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

Look at the three most successful politicians of this era. Ronald Reagan told his favorite story a million times, about the boy who saw a pile of manure and immediately grabbed a shovel, saying, “There has to be a pony in there somewhere.”

Corny, yes, but that story captures an essential American quality: a spirit of resilience and hopefulness, “especially during tough times.” Bill Clinton learned a lot from Reagan. His campaign video in 1992 was called “The Man from Hope,” and he reveled in his “Comeback Kid” nickname.

Obama learned from both of them, adopting the resonant slogan “Hope and Change” and telling countless stories about his mother, who depended on food stamps, or his grandmother, who faced gender discrimination. How often did he and Michelle talk about straining to pay off their student loans?

All those tales made a powerful point: We understand your lives. We've faced the same problems. We're just like you.

Her book contains a few. She offers a moving tribute to her mother, who suffered through a childhood marked by “trauma and abandonment” and went to work as a housekeeper and nanny at age 14. Expect to hear a lot more about her mother – and daughter and grandchild – once the campaign heats up.

So the question remains: Can Hillary convince the country there's a pony in there somewhere?

Contact Steve and Cokie Roberts at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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