Hillary Clinton's Surprisingly Effective Campaign

The former secretary of state jettisons sweeping rhetoric, and focuses on specific policies.

Jim Young / Reuters

Hillary Clinton has been an official candidate for president for five weeks, and she still hasn’t done the thing most candidates do on day one: given a speech laying out her vision for America. Nor is she planning on doing so anytime soon. Politico reports that Hillary’s “why I’m running for president,” speech, initially scheduled for May, has now been delayed until June, or even later.

There’s a reason for that: The speech is unlikely to be very good. Soaring rhetoric and grand themes have never been Hillary’s strengths. That’s one reason so many liberals found her so much less inspirational than Barack Obama in 2008. And it’s a problem with deep roots. In his biography, A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein describes Hillary, then in law school, struggling to articulate her generation’s perspective in an address to the League of Women Voters. “If she was speaking about a clearly defined subject,” Bernstein writes, “her thoughts would be well organized, finely articulated, and delivered in almost perfect outline form. But before the League audience, she again and again lapsed into sweeping abstractions.”

Team Clinton appears to understand this. And so it has done something shrewd. Instead of talking vision, Hillary is talking policy, which she does really well.

If Hillary’s struggles with vision go back a long time, so does her passion for wonkery. As a student government leader at Wellesley, Bernstein notes, Hillary developed “a better system for the return of library books” and “studied every aspect of the Wellesley curriculum in developing a successful plan to reduce the number of required courses.” In 1993, she took time off from a vacation in Hawaii to grill local officials about the state’s healthcare system. In his excellent book on Hillary’s 2000 Senate race, Michael Tomasky observes that, “In the entire campaign, she had exactly one truly inspiring moment” but that, “over time it became evident to all but the most cynical that she actually cared about utility rates.”

Hillary’s handlers have played to this strength. On April 29, she devoted the first major speech of her campaign not to her vision for America, but to something more specific: race and crime. She began with a graphic and harrowing description of the young black men recently killed by police:

Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina. Unarmed. In debt. And terrified of spending more time in jail for child support payments he couldn’t afford. Tamir Rice shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Unarmed and just 12 years old. Eric Garner choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of this city. And now Freddie Gray. His spine nearly severed while in police custody.

She recounted advocating for prisoners while director the University of Arkansas’ legal-aid clinic. She noted the parallels between race and class, observing that life expectancy is declining not only for many African Americans, but also for white women without high-school degrees. And she made the crucial point that because government currently treats drug addiction and psychiatric disorders primarily as criminal rather than public-health problems, “our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions.”

The speech was not merely substantive. It was authentic. It showcased the real Hillary Clinton: A woman who, whatever her faults, hates injustice and knows what she’s talking about when it comes to government.

A week later in Las Vegas, Hillary gave another impressive speech, this one on immigration. In a media environment where “pro” and “anti” immigration often refers merely to how many people America lets in, Hillary turned the conversation to how America treats immigrants once we do. First, she talked movingly about her childhood memories of the migrant farm workers who worked in the fields around Chicago. Then she attacked the idea, common in “pro-immigration” Republican circles, that America should legalize undocumented immigrants without allowing them citizenship. “Today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship,” she declared. “Not one. When they talk about “legal status,” that’s code for “second-class status.” America, Hillary insisted, must see the undocumented not merely as workers, but as human beings.

Sooner or later, Hillary will have to move from policy to philosophy. It may be a rocky transition. And if the Republicans nominate Marco Rubio (which at this point looks like a decent bet), she will face a candidate who interweaves personal biography and national aspiration better than she does. But if Hillary stumbles, these opening weeks of her campaign may offer a template for how she regains her footing. She’s at her best talking about America not abstractly, but concretely. She’s most inspiring when talking not about what she believes, but about what she wants to do. And she most effectively humanizes herself by being true to who she is: knowledgeable, passionate, and vaguely obsessive about making government work. Against Rubio, or any other likely Republican challenger, that identity should provide an excellent contrast.