It’s a bad sign when your presidential campaign needs a reboot. It’s a worse sign when your advisers announce that reboot publicly.
That’s exactly where Hillary Clinton finds herself this week. In an attempt to right what is universally seen as a listing campaign, the Democratic frontrunner is attempting to reassure her supporters, donors, and party—as well as prospective supporters and donors—that she has what it takes to run and win a race. But so far, the hamfisted execution of that reboot suggests that she hasn’t learned enough from the debacle of her 2008 campaign, and it’s hard to imagine that events of the last two days will do much to reassure major donors and party leaders.
The precipitating cause of all of this is the continuing drip-drip of Clinton’s State Department email scandal. Her supporters have wrung their hands in dismay that Clinton has not yet found a way to put concerns about the emails to rest (without ever considering that there may not be any especially good political answers). On Friday, in a first stab at turning things around, Clinton granted a rare interview to Andrea Mitchell, in which she refused to apologize for using a private email account and server, though she did offer a classic non-apology, expressing regret that “this has been confusing to people.” On Monday, she spoke to the Associated Press, which kicked off its story this way: “Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday she does not need to apologize for using a private email account and server while at the State Department because ‘what I did was allowed.’”
Tuesday morning, however, The New York Times ran a big story based on “extensive interviews” with Clinton advisers, in which they “acknowledged missteps—such as their slow response to questions about her email practices—and promised that this fall the public would see the sides of Mrs. Clinton that are often obscured by the noise and distractions of modern campaigning.” The aides said they want Clinton to show humor and heart, and they said she was scrapping the slogan “everyday Americans,” which never seemed to catch on.
Then, during an interview Tuesday with ABC, Clinton actually apologized: “I should have used two accounts. One for personal, one for work-related emails. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.” She followed that with a post to Facebook and an email to supporters.
The reversal—two almost diametrically opposed answers to the same question in two days—does not suggest a campaign that is confident and has a plan. And the spectacle of Clinton’s aides speaking to the press about what they “want her” to do makes for uncomfortable recollections of the 2008 campaign, in which Clinton aides fought for control of the campaign (and with each other) via the media. Heading into this race, Clinton promised she had learned the lessons of the campaign, including the risk of failing to show emotion on the trail and the danger of allowing chaos among advisers, and wouldn’t make them again.
So far, the record is mixed. The tactical lessons seem to have stuck: Caught by surprise by Barack Obama’s wily delegate-gathering strategy seven years ago, she’s counting them more carefully. But she still struggles with organization, message, and emotion. It’s impossible to imagine more disciplined campaigns—like either Obama run, or either George W. Bush run—going through the public reboot of the last few days. (Those four campaigns also share something important that differentiates them from Clinton in 2008: They were able to win both the nomination and the White House.)
One additional problem with announcing that the candidate is going to show more emotion is that once she does, those displays start to seem, if not fake, at least forced. In the ABC interview Tuesday, Clinton got choked up while discussing her mother, Dorothy Rodham. There are many reasons to believe this is genuine: Losing a parent is a traumatic experience, and Clinton has repeatedly spoken passionately during this campaign about the influence of her mother, who led a truly harrowing early life and died in 2011 at 92. Yet because her by-all-indications-genuine display of emotion came the same day as the Times story, skeptical reporters questioned whether it was for real. (She also appeared Tuesday on Ellen, a venue intended to be more casual and authentic, where she kibbitzed with Amy Schumer and danced the nae nae.)
Clinton's struggles show the disadvantages of running as an incumbent, her strategy so far. (Clinton’s Wednesday morning speech making the case for President Obama’s Iran nuclear agreement is the latest instance of this strategy.) One is that the campaign can forget that it actually has to win voters over. A second is that the strategy assumes the candidate has already proven her competence. Clinton’s waffling over the emails, and her advisers’ public declaration of a broader change of course, do nothing to project competence.
Clinton isn't alone in struggling to show humor and heart. Jeb Bush’s somewhat wooden appearance with Stephen Colbert Tuesday night, and his inability to effectively respond to Donald Trump’s accusation that he is “low energy,” mirror Clinton’s own problems. But because Bush is no longer the frontrunner, at least for now, and because Bernie Sanders is running even or ahead of Clinton in several states, she cannot simply run against Bush, as she was doing a month ago. (Bush’s sinking poll numbers may offer her a cautionary tale.) It’s also important to put the troubles of the last few weeks in perspective: Clinton still has a solid advantage in the Democratic primary, whether Joe Biden runs or not.
But it doesn't matter how many times James Carville goes on TV to mock the press or warn his fellow Democrats against overreacting to Clinton’s troubles: His fellow Democrats are already alarmed—and her reboot, rather than assuaging their fears, may be making the problem worse.
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