Memo to Hillary Clinton: 'You're the Problem'

Best bet for a third Clinton term is if she runs as the "Real Hillary"—warm, open, and honest.

The following is a faux memo, although its contents are based upon my interviews with people close to Hillary Clinton. They spoke on condition of anonymity because: a) Clinton has not decided whether to run for president; b) she has not authorized anybody to talk about 2016 deliberations; c) her friends, family, and advisers are still in the early stages of debating strategies. This represents one point of view.

To: Hillary

From: A Few of Us

Subject: Anti-Hillary

The last we spoke as a group, you made it clear your mind wasn't made up about 2016. We get it: You're tired, and it's too soon. And you're right: By this time next year, you'll know for certain whether you've got the fire in your belly, and we'll be better able to judge voters' attitudes toward a "third Clinton term." (Sorry, we know you hate that phrase, but it makes a point.) Everybody on the team agrees you deserve some space.

But a few of us felt compelled to jot down some "unofficial" thoughts for you to digest during the holidays. We're a bit worried about the nature of the team's discussions so far. What bothers us is this: The talks are almost exclusively tactical, traditional, and safe—based on a consensus that your brand is smartly positioned for 2016 and that you would be the prohibitive favorite. A few of us think differently. We think:

Buffeted by jarring social change, the American public is disillusioned with:

  • Washington, especially the gridlock.
  • Politics in general, especially the phoniness.  
  • Institutions, especially the ineffectiveness.

As the 2016 election fast approaches, most Americans intellectually understand the importance of your experience as first lady, senator, and secretary of State. Your personal approval ratings are higher than those of President Obama. You should be proud. But, as you've heard us say, Americans make most of their decisions—from buying homes and cars to deciding where to shop and how to vote—not with their heads, but with their guts. By that measure, we've seen results of psycho-social surveys and of focus groups that raise red flags.

Most Americans, including many of your supporters, consider you to be:

  • A creature of Washington.
  • Intensely political (think of words like "calculating" and "ambitious").
  • An institution (and not just because of your age. The Clinton family itself is an institution, one freighted with baggage).

And so your biggest hurdle isn't your age, the president's record, your husband, or even Benghazi/Whitewater, etc. It's you, Hillary. You're the problem—that is, if you once again present yourself as an institution of Washington awaiting a political coronation. To win, you must be the anti-Hillary. You need to blast the public's caricature of you to smithereens and replace it with what we know as the Real Hillary.

In 2015-16, you must be:

  • Accessible. Be a constant presence on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media (you, not your staff). Surround yourself all day with reporters and photographers. Exhaust them with … you. Make John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" look like a buttoned-down operation. Operate with a flexible schedule that allows for off-the-cuff wonderfulness.
  • Honest and Authentic. Take tough stands and state them clearly. Make mistakes and own up to them. As a matter of fact, the only thing we should schedule for you every day is the "Daily Mistake and Apology." We're kidding ... sort of.
  • Vulnerable. Remember choking up in New Hampshire? You looked human. People like humans. Don't be afraid of looking tired or even grumpy; those are emotions that people can relate to, if you explain them. That horsey laugh of yours? Don't hide it; you're a funny, warm person. Let people see you. Be. Hillary.
  • Flexible. We live in a time of unprecedented change, when institutions adapt or perish. Be an institution that adapts. Be quick to change your strategy, your message, your staff (fire us first!) and, yes, even your hairstyle. Tut-tutting be damned.
  • Small. People are tired of big institutions. Travel light and run a lean operation. We've told people this for years but they don't believe us: While nobody feels a country's pain like your husband, you are better than President Clinton in living rooms and at kitchen tables. Far better. You are a master of the small talk and small gestures that still make a difference in politics, especially in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Show them.
  • Competent. This goes without saying, but that divided, plodding campaign operation you ran in 2008 didn't work. It also sent a bad signal to voters about how you might run their government. A model for your 2016 campaign would be (you're going to hate this) no-drama Obama. Also, your staff is one way to shatter the perception that you're a polarizer. Hire a Republican or two—ideally, people who worked for the Bush-Cheney White House and later (publicly) disowned the politics of division. Surprise them.
  • Populist: Our detailed thoughts on your agenda will come in a separate memo but understand this: The next president of the United States (Democrat or Republican) will be a populist. Income disparity and declining social mobility are clichés in Washington, but in the rest of America, they are facts of life. Middle-class voters, especially, are angry and scared, and they're hungry for a leader who will carry them across that bridge built for the 21st century. Borrow from populists on the left (Elizabeth Warren's attacks on Wall Street) and the right (Rand Paul's attacks on NSA surveillance) to be the singular candidate for our troubled times.

In addition, you could play on voters' distrust of government by reaching back to the first Clinton White House (notice, we said "first") for a serious platform on "reinventing government." What if, for example, you promised to spend your first 100 days in office focused exclusively on making good programs (read: Democratic programs) even better—say, Head Start and Obamacare? Implicitly conceding that the Obama administration dropped the ball on governing, you would earn back the public's trust in government before launching new initiatives. FDR did something like this before launching the New Deal.

Pope Francis has reminded us of the power of small gestures. Without changing the Vatican's ideology one iota, he has transformed the way people think about the Catholic Church, one symbolic act at a time. And consider the parallels between your job and that of the pope, an old man running an ancient institution marred by scandal and incompetence. You can be just as transformative. Actually, if you run for president, you must be. That's what a few of us think.