Using his now famous malaprop, the 2000 GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush declared that his opponents had “misunderestimated” him. All politicians suffer from real or perceived weaknesses. For Bush, his propensity to mangle the English language caused some to question his intellectual qualifications to hold the nation’s highest office. Yet his unpretentiousness and authenticity made him the candidate Americans said they would like to have a beer with. And he twice won the presidency, a feat his more patrician father failed to achieve.
The 2016 Democratic candidate faces two deficits that threaten her decade-long quest to become the first woman president of the United States. More than half of those polled do not find her honest or trustworthy. Her unfavorability ratings are equally high. What is it about Hillary Clinton that prompts such visceral hatred among her opponents?
In October 2009, a year after her close and searing defeat to Obama, Hillary declared that she would not run again for president and looked forward to retirement. But much like Richard Nixon, Hillary Clinton keeps coming back. When I saw her campaigning for Alison Lundergan Grimes in the 2014 Kentucky Senate race against Mitch McConnell, I knew that she would toss her cap into the 2016 presidential race. That October day, Hillary Clinton was on fire. To the strains of Katy Perry’s feminist anthem, “You’re gonna hear me roar,” she appeared before a Louisville convention hall filled with rapturous Democratic faithful. McConnell won the reelection, but with her 65% approval rating while secretary of state, Clinton seemed certain to be the next Democratic presidential nominee.
Also like Nixon, Clinton is now an unpopular, untrusted candidate. But once she enters office, Hillary has proved herself each time: as First Lady, as senator, as secretary of state. Whenever Nixon faced an electoral obstacle, he reinvented himself. He was the loving husband and father in his 1952 Checkers Speech, the dutiful vice president to Ike in 1960, the knowledgeable statesman in 1968. “He’s tanned, he’s rested, he’s ready,” was the waggish description of how the enigmatic Nixon could resurrect himself at any moment to run for office.
Hillary Clinton has recreated herself throughout her historic public life. In Arkansas, when her husband was running for governor, she took his surname to seem less feminist. When the healthcare initiative failed under her leadership as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton realized that Americans didn’t want an unaccountable presidential spouse running a policy shop, so she reverted to a more traditional model of White House wife. Viewed as a hyper-partisan by some, she reached across the political abyss as a senator from New York and earned bipartisan praise for her legislative skills.
92% of Americans polled say they would vote for a qualified woman for president. That’s up from 75% who responded similarly when I first began studying the question forty years ago. Still, Hillary finds herself caught in a dilemma. The presidency has only been viewed through the lens of male leadership models that reward toughness and aggression. What is a female candidate for that office to do when voters view her gender as compassionate and sensitive? Appear too “soft” and the commander-in-chief role seems unattainable, especially in an era of worldwide terrorism. Yet, if she follows a masculine leadership paradigm, she risks appearing threateningly unfeminine to some.
Hillary’s State Department e-mail fiasco has exacerbated doubts about her fitness for office. FBI Director James Comey declined to recommend indicting her, but she faces damning charges of carelessness. Can she rise up one more time by presenting herself as a competent, knowledgeable, sane, mature leader, in contrast to the persistently erratic and defamatory Donald Trump?
What would George W. Bush do? When I spent more than an hour with him and a small group of students at the University of Louisville in 2007, I observed how personable, witty, accessible, and, yes, eloquent he was. That experience helped me understand how he had defeated charismatic Texas governor Ann Richards in 1994, earned his party’s 2000 presidential nomination, and won two terms in the White House. In retail politics, he was himself, comfortable in his own skin.
And therein lies another lesson for Hillary Clinton. She may not be able to reverse the trust deficit, but, rather than creating yet another persona, causing voters to question her authenticity, the former First Lady, senator, and Cabinet secretary should be herself. Those who have met her one-to-one or in small groups describe her as warm, engaging, genuine, caring.
Of course, Mrs. Clinton runs the risk of seeming too feminine, indeed maternal, as she runs for the office dominated for more than two centuries by father figures. If her opponent disparages her gender, she should borrow a page from John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign playbook. When he realized that his Catholicism would not fade as an issue, he eloquently defended his free exercise of religion, while noting that his public policies would not be shaped by it, in a landmark speech to Protestant ministers in Houston. JFK breached the religious barrier to Catholics serving as president and overcame decades of discrimination against Irish immigrants. Barack Obama addressed the burden of race in his 2008 breakthrough speech after the dustup over his controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright.
Hillary Clinton has fewer than two months left, after three decades in the public arena, to define herself and her vision for the American people. She now seems at peace with describing herself “as her mother’s daughter and her daughter’s mother.” But the Democratic candidate also relates the story of how her mother, born on the day Congress passed the women’s suffrage amendment in 1919, taught her to stand up to bullies. Combining strength with compassion, much as Bush 43 promoted “compassionate conservatism,” to address societal ills, may be Hillary’s winning strategy.
Featured image credit: Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.