Politics

07.01.14

What Hillary Clinton Can Learn From Portugal, Costa Rica, and England in the World Cup

Five Ways She Could Be A Better Candidate

Two very exciting summer dramas are playing out before our very eyes.  The first is a mad frenzy about the world’s oldest sport, in which the press obsesses and analyzes every move of the star player.  The other is international soccer. 

But as the World Cup is crushing in the ratings—viewership is up 50% from 2010, and the U.S.-Portugal match was the most watched soccer match in American history—Hillary Clinton seems to be struggling to articulate her narrative and fumbling easy issues like how to message her personal wealth. 

With this chasm in mind, and, quite frankly, as a victim of Cup fever, I thought it would make sense to see what political insights one could glean from this tantalizing tournament.  So here are five lessons that might make Hillary Clinton a better candidate:

1)    Acclimate.

South American countries are, on the whole, playing far better than their European counterparts, and many are chalking this up to their experience with the continent’s smothering heat and humidity. England took the unusual step of publicly blaming the humidity for its first loss, though its clear that conditions have affected many countries’ play.

Similarly, the political environment today is far different than what Hillary Clinton faced in 2008. The mood then had calcified into an anti-Bush drive for change; general election messaging was relatively easy. Today, there is no such one-sided partisan disfavor. Voters now are frustrated with both parties, and technology has created a new class of citizens who prefer change and shun brand loyalty. Candidates who succeed in capturing the public’s imagination are those who are articulate, visionary, and genuine. 

2)    Grit beats legacy.

Three words: Costa freaking Rica. For most of this year, Costa Rica has been ranked by FIFA in the low 30s. Now they are the undefeated winners of Group D, conquerors of Greece, and the latest quarterfinalists. Out are top teams Italy, Spain, and England, who have six World Cup championships, including the two most recent, among them. 

Hillary Clinton is highly competent and unquestionably experienced, and this combination has freed her from the burden of competing for front-runner status. But being a front-runner can be a curse as much as a blessing. Americans get tired of front-runners (see, e.g., Ed Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, and Mario Cuomo). A recent poll showed that the majority of Americans were turned off by the thought of another Clinton–Bush general election purely because of name exhaustion.

Asking presidential candidates to be so politically amorous is not playing to Hillary’s strengths because she’s a veteran, not an upstart.  Moreover, our natural instinct is to find and elevate an underdog, and this just might give charismatic opponents, like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an opening. 

3)    There is a lot of action in between goals.

How many times have you heard a dubious Cup observer bemoan a low-scoring game? Perhaps our fast-paced sports have made us a little ADHD, but those who just want to see goals scored are often missing out on some great soccer. How exciting were the 120 minutes of regular play in Brazil vs. Chile even prior to the dramatic shootout ending?

With this chasm in mind, and, quite frankly, as a victim of Cup fever, I thought it would make sense to see what political insights one could glean from this tantalizing tournament.

Under the distractive shield of the press’s obsession with “will she or won’t she,” other candidates like O’Malley, Vice President Biden, and Gov. Deval Patrick are quietly traveling to early states, building relationships, and orchestrating their own narrative. Just because these other candidates aren’t garnering the same attention doesn’t mean they aren’t running, or at least contemplating running. There is too much political real estate leftover, and there are too many candidates whose careers won’t allow for waiting another four—or perhaps eight—years. 

4)    Outcomes can change in an instant.

Like a swift punch to the gut, Portugal—in the latest goal ever scored in World Cup play—dashed U.S. hopes of becoming the early Cinderella winner of Group G (though fortunately not of advancing). The silence surrounding televisions across the country was absolutely deafening; the pain on American faces remained for days afterward.  

The recent narrative about Clinton’s wealth, inability to relate to people, and political ham-handedness took her by surprise. This is hard to compute, considering that their personal wealth is not recent, nor were questions about it unexpected. Bill Clinton used to be the master of relating to people, but the message now coming out of the Clintons is that they are not “truly rich.” So says the former cabinet secretary who is pulling well into six figures for a single speech. Momentum in politics matters, and it’s not unfathomable that stories like these can build up and take the wind out of her sails before she ever gets going.

5)    No one likes a faker.

The pathetic dives and writhing on the field is a turn off to the most ardent American fan. For every Clint Dempsey willing to play with a broken nose, there seem to be a dozen floppers a la Cristiano Ronaldo.

Memo to Hillary: I know you know this, but just be genuine. Voters today crave authenticity. Spinning and political-speak make us cringe and feel insulted (almost as much as the phony sports bets politicians from opposing teams so awkwardly make each year). The best answer around your wealth is to embrace it, because it’s real, and hell, you worked hard for it. You should feel no compunction to downplay or apologize for your success because I imagine you want every other American to also have the chance to dramatically raise her standard of living.   

We haven’t seen a candidate dominate a potential presidential field as Hillary is doing in a long, long time. But having taken six years away from the campaign trail, her political skills are naturally a bit rusty. My advice is to acclimate to a new political environment, bring back the hustle, and keep a close eye on your opponents and the game. And for the love of all that is holy—just keep it real.