The Unbearable Glamour of Hillary Clinton
It was the photo that launched a thousand memes: then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sitting aboard a military aircraft, casually reading her phone from behind dark sunglasses. The picture, taken as Clinton flew to Libya in 2012 just a few short months before the horrific Benghazi attacks, undoubtedly exudes cool. I admit that though I’m no fan of Clinton, even I found the photo to be glamorous at the time.
In Virginia Postrel’s phenomenal book The Power of Glamour, she notes that glamour has the power to persuade us to make purchases—and cast votes—by tapping into our longings for something better and the hope we can reach there. President Obama ran his campaign fueled by the three elements she identifies as the pillars of glamour: a bit of mystery, a sense of ease, and the promise of escape to an aspirational future. We weren’t 100 percent sure where he stood, but he made running for president look easy and promised us hope and change.
Not all campaigns try to use glamour to their advantage, of course; Postrel notes that Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s were rooted in charisma rather than glamour, and she defines the concepts quite differently. Charisma is captured by “he feels my pain.” Glamour, instead, asks “isn’t he incredible?”
But to put it mildly, charisma has never been Hillary’s strong suit. Even if her campaign pushes the “Grandmother-in-Chief” narrative full strength, there’s the inevitable reality that Hillary Clinton exists in a point-oh-one percent bubble and has for decades. Last year, she said she hadn’t even driven a car since 1996. Being genuinely folksy and relatable will not be easy; being glamorous and aspirational may be her best or only path.
So then: can Hillary pull off glamour for the long haul? Consider Postrel’s three elements: mystery, ease, and the promise of a better future.
First, there’s mystery. You can see her team already struggling with this, openly debating when she should get into the race and if she should even bother putting herself out there for debates against D-list contenders for the Democratic nomination. She’s tried hard to avoid weighing in on controversies. Clearly, she’d like to use mystery to her advantage. A look at her favorability ratings in polls over the decades shows that the more she’s visible in the political fight, the lower her numbers go.
Once Hillary announces, she won’t have that luxury. The Elizabeth Warren wing of her party will demand that she detail an economic agenda they can get behind; the Republicans will have warehouses of opposition research about her past statements at their disposal to weaponize in campaign ads. She may try to preserve mystery, but it is unlikely she will succeed.
Then, there’s the element of ease. It’s never been said that Hillary makes campaigning look easy. I don’t just mean her personal style, though the hard-to-watch book tour of last summer is a perfect example of her shortcomings there.
Unlike “No Drama Obama,” Clintonworld has always been known for infighting, back-biting, and commotion. Of course, Hillary has been snapping up talented former Obama staff and consultants, and her camp has been telling reporters this time will be different. But has Old Clintonworld truly been quietly, peacefully sidelined?
As Monday’s David Brock drama illustrated, every prominent Democratic consultant gets a plum seat at the table in a Hillary campaign, the odds that they will all agree (and play nice together) must be next to zero. A candidate never wants their campaign team to be the story, but too many cooks in the kitchen will likely whip up plenty of fodder for drama-hungry reporters.
On both mystery and ease, Hillary will have a challenge. But the area where the race will truly be won and lost is the final piece: the promise of escape to aspirational future. (This is the element of glamour that makes sleek auto advertisements compel us to look up the prices on luxury cars, because we badly want to be zipping down that coastal highway, too.) So what, exactly, is Hillary Clinton selling? Can someone who has been at the center of American politics since before “pogs” were popular credibly offer to provide an “escape,” a turning of the page to a bright new future?
Despite economic improvement, middle and working-class voters are still struggling, particularly white working class men who have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves in recent years. It’s certain that Republicans will talk directly to these voters, aiming to persuade them that we need to move on from an era that saw the middle class hollowed out while nearly eight trillion dollars has been added to the national debt. Whether Republicans are successful will depend on if they can credibly propose policies that people think will lead them to greener pastures.
But with a GOP field largely full of fresh faces, almost none of whom have ever run for president before, the race will be on to claim the mantle of being the candidate of innovative ideas and the future. Clinton, by virtue of how long she’s been immersed in the swamp of politics, will struggle to credibly say she’s what’s “fresh and new.”
In order for Hillary to win, she’ll need to use glamour to her advantage. She’ll need to tell people just enough about the Clinton history without poisoning the story. She’ll need to make it look easy. And she’ll need create in people a sense of longing for the kind of America she would lead.
She has an enormous challenge ahead.