Hillary 2016 Launches With Corporate Style, Little Substance

The former secretary of state would like you to associate these cheerful, hardworking Americans and their winning smiles with her political campaign.

Mike Segar/Reuters

Sunday evening, some hours after Hillary Clinton released a video announcing her bid for the presidency, I opened a web browser and pressed play to take a look. But I quickly glanced away, reflexively checking Twitter as I sometimes do during pre-roll ads. When I looked back 45 seconds later I felt frustrated with The New York Times. Hadn't their website promised that my video would start in 15 seconds?

At the one-minute mark I began to wonder, "What is this ad even for? An investment bank? A health insurer? Windows 9?" After 90 seconds I was genuinely curious. And that's when I heard the former secretary of state's voice and realized what was going on: I was already watching Hillary's announcement video.

She just happened to not appear in the first three-fifths of it:

Now I have watched it a dozen times. And about this there can be no doubt: If the War on Terrorism or global economic competition requires the next president of the United States to identify some cheerful, clean-cut, ethnically diverse Americans with winning smiles and glowing complexions, Hillary Clinton is up to the task. Her team even made sure to include both dog and cat owners—though they also have a wildly unrealistic idea of what sorts of houses and apartments are within the reach of "everyday Americans," unless the phrase is being used, for purposes of the ad, to mean "the upper-middle-class" rather than "median income."

What does the announcement video tell us beyond Hillary Clinton's eagerness to associate herself with people who could've been cast on the heartwarming show Parenthood and her attendant hope that more people like them will now associate with her?

It tells us that, this go around, she's changing her approach.

To announce her entry into Election 2008, Hillary released a 1 minute 43 second video. It is almost entirely composed of her looking into the camera and talking. And while that was never enough time to delve into specific policy positions, the Election '08 announcement signaled a lot about her priorities. "Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the War in Iraq and to restore respect for America around the world," she said, "how to make us energy independent and free of foreign oil, how to end the deficits that threaten Social Security and Medicare, and let's definitely talk about how every American can have quality affordable health care."

She also mentions her upbringing, her efforts on behalf of women's rights, protecting soldiers, and a "basic bargain" wherein Americans work hard to get ahead.

This year's video is longer. The production values are much better. But it says a lot less.

"Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times," she declares. "But the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion. So you can do more than just get by—you can get ahead. And stay ahead. Because when families are strong, America is strong." Every sentence could've been uttered by any politician.

The closest thing to a contested idea: "The deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top." Then again, here's Rand Paul in his announcement speech: "I have a vision for America where everyone who wants to work will have a job. Many Americans though are being left behind. The reward of work seems beyond their grasp. Under the watch of both parties, the poor seem to get poorer and the rich get richer."

Even these most bitter rivals agree on that much!

Senator Paul goes on to suggest reforms of variable quality consistent with his worldview: His speech urges economic-freedom zones, tax cuts to incentivize companies to bring profits "on shore," school choice, balanced budgets, spending foreign-aid money here, and reforming criminal justice, among other suggestions.

What does Hillary propose doing to remedy a deck stacked for those at the top? The fact that her campaign didn't find it necessary to hint at anything specific during this cycle's launch makes me think that the lesson taken from her loss was the following: Obama was great at evoking inspiration with vague, aesthetically pleasing content. Let's try that. Hillary isn't as likable. But other people are. And brands often get more likable by associating themselves with likable people.

As I've noted with regard to other candidates, an official campaign announcement is only a beginning. Hillary will likely give voters a lot more substance. At the same time, her cozy ties to Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, the enormous wealth of her family, the donors on whom she will rely to fund her campaign, and the Clinton Foundation's ties to the global moneyed elite make it unlikely that she'll ever reshuffle a deck stacked to favor those at the top. Absent specific, credible proposals, the rational voter should ignore that pledge. Thus the launch video's most glaring flaw: When the candidate finally addressed a single matter of substance, she did so in a way that wasn't yet believable.