Column: Hillary Clinton gets it sincerely wrong

When Texas and Ohio vote in Tuesday’s Democratic primaries, they may bring Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency to an end. If she loses either of those states, her bid is over barring the formalities. This is a position few expected her to be in. Not long ago, success in the primaries and victory in the general election were regarded as almost inevitable. What went wrong?

For the answer, one should turn (as always) to the teachings of Marx. “The secret of success in life is sincerity,” Groucho once famously observed. “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

This truth about the human condition applies with particular force to politics. Mrs Clinton tries hard to fake sincerity – so hard it is painful to watch. Sometimes, in fact, I suspect that she really is sincere and only looks as though she is faking. Barack Obama, on the other hand, may actually be sincere – and if he is not, he fakes it so well it makes no difference. Elections are won and lost formany reasons, but if I had to point to just one in the present case, this would be it.

It is surely telling that the most effective moments in Mrs Clinton’s campaign have been those rare times when a real person has appeared to break through: the tears in New Hampshire, the moving and seemingly unaffected tribute to wounded soldiers at the end of the Houston debate the other day. But for most of the time she has veered from one false personality to another, often during the course of a single debate or interview. One moment she would be acting tough, the next warm; now aloof, now approachable; now a fun person, fond of a joke (that was the worst), now stern and serious. In every moment of repose came that scary rictus smile, to emphasise the lack of authenticity and remind one irresistibly of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

This, of course, is the very style of commentary that Mrs Clinton and her team blame for her predicament – full of pro-Obama bias, they would say, and devoid of analytical substance. That complaint does have some merit. Especially at the beginning of the campaign, when Mr Obama was just an interesting possibility, commentators were far too kind to him – declaring television debates in which he had been trounced by Mrs Clinton a close thing, for instance.

But mistakes in reporting this story did not all go in Mr Obama’s favour. The press has picked up the line that he is all style and no substance as eagerly as the Clinton campaign could wish. Mrs Clinton’s position on healthcare, for instance, is reverently acknowledged as a working blueprint, with every last detail nailed down. Not at all: it is a set of bullet points, no more detailed than Mr Obama’s outlined proposal. Mrs Clinton has not even said how her individual health-insurance mandate – the crucial difference, she tirelessly insists, between her plan and Mr Obama’s – will be enforced. And consider her “time out” on trade. Could you have a vaguer policy than that?

The main thing, however, is that in choosing between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama, character is key because their differences on policy are trivial. This is why the complaint about style over substance falls flat. Moreover, it is no expression of bias to say that Mr Obama has grown more confident and effective in the debates; or that he is a more likeable and appealing politician than Mrs Clinton; or that audiences respond to him with far greater enthusiasm. These things just happen to be true. The Clinton campaign only made matters worse by striving to deny what was obvious to everybody else.

Lack of charm need not have been an insuperable obstacle. Few people ever accused former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher of being likeable or appealing, but she won elections anyway. She was no phoney: what you saw was what you got. Mrs Clinton’s focus groups complain of a lack of warmth and the candidate is next seen in jeans and sweatshirt joshing tensely with reporters on the campaign plane. “See, she’s smiling.”

How much this multiple personality disorder is a reflection of the candidate herself or of the people running her campaign is difficult to say. But the Democratic party itself must bear much of the blame. Its adulation of the Clintons went to her head. It bred complacency and a sense of entitlement. The campaign expected an easy win and had no real plan of action beyond Super Tuesday. Since the first Obama surge, Mrs Clinton and her advisers have seemed in shock, vacillating between insisting that everything is still on track and desperately reaching for another personality for the candidate to try on.

Mrs Clinton was never as strong a contender as her courtiers had led her to think. Her claim of vast experience – the crux of her campaign – was contestable at the very least. Once the campaign began, her husband was likely to be as much a liability as an asset, and so it proved. She proudly exemplified a kind of politics (“I’m a fighter”) that many Americans had had enough of. In Mr Obama she turned out to be facing an exceptional opponent, with all the novelty and authenticity she lacked. And then, if all that were not enough, her campaign, once rattled, was woefully managed.

Bearing all this is mind, the real surprise may not be that she is on the point of defeat, but that she still retains – for one more day, at least – some small chance of succeeding.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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