Why Electing Hillary in ’16 Is More Important Than Electing Obama in ’08
A former Obama ’08 speechwriter explains how and why Secretary Clinton is a lot more compelling than you might think.
I hear you’re still not Ready for Hillary.
I get it. I didn’t start off as her biggest fan either. During the 2008 campaign, I wrote plenty of less-than-complimentary words about Hillary Clinton in my role as Barack Obama’s speechwriter. Then, a few weeks after the election, I had a well-documented run-in with a piece of cardboard that bore a striking resemblance to the incoming Secretary of State.
It was one of the stupider, more disrespectful mistakes I’ve made, and one that could have cost me a job if Hillary hadn’t accepted my apology, which she did with grace and humor. As a result, I had the chance to serve in the Obama administration with someone who was far different than the caricature I had helped perpetuate.
The most famous woman in the world would walk through the White House with no entourage, casually chatting up junior staffers along the way. She was by far the most prepared, impressive person at every Cabinet meeting. She worked harder and logged more miles than anyone in the administration, including the president. And she’d spend large amounts of time and energy on things that offered no discernible benefit to her political future—saving elephants from ivory poachers, listening to the plight of female coffee farmers in Timor-Leste, defending LGBT rights in places like Uganda.
Most of all—and you hear this all the time from people who’ve worked for her—Hillary Clinton is uncommonly warm and thoughtful. She surprises with birthday cakes. She calls when a grandparent passes away. She once rearranged her entire campaign schedule so a staffer could attend her daughter’s preschool graduation. Her husband charms by talking to you; Hillary does it by listening to you—not in a head-nodding, politician way; in a real person way.
This same story has repeated itself throughout Clinton’s career: those who initially view her as distrustful and divisive from afar find her genuine and cooperative in person. It was the case with voters in New York, Republicans in the Senate, Obama people in the White House, and heads of state all over the world. There’s a reason being America’s chief diplomat was the specific job Obama asked Hillary to do—she has the perfect personality for it.
Your eyes are rolling. You don’t often see or read about this side of Hillary. You don’t doubt her fierce brilliance when she’s debating policy with Bernie Sanders. You don’t doubt her stamina or tenacity when she’s sitting through hour eleven of the Benghazi Kangaroo Court. But when it comes to nearly everything else, Clinton can seem a little too cautious and forced—like she’s trying too hard or not at all, preferring to retreat behind the safety of boilerplate rhetoric and cheesy soundbites. It’s a tendency that can’t just be blamed on her opponents or the media, though I wonder how many of us would be so brave and open in our public personas after being subjected to 25 years of unrelenting and downright nasty criticism of what we say, what we do, and how we look.
Recently, though, there are signs that Hillary is finding this courage. About a month ago, BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer asked Clinton a simple question that, for some strange reason, no reporter or staffer ever thought to press her on: Why are you doing this? What truly motivates you?
Her response was not to talk about fighting for this constituency or that issue. There is no pablum about real solutions for real people with real problems, or the poll-tested garbage about coming from the middle of America with the middle class at the middle of her priorities (I can no longer remember if that’s a joke we used to make as speechwriters or an actual line.)
There is only this, from Hillary: “love and kindness.” She mentioned it for the first time after the shooting in Charleston, and then expanded on the theme a few weeks later: “I want this campaign, and eventually my administration, to be more about inspiring young people, and older ones as well, to find that niche where kindness matters, whether it’s to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a fellow student—whether it’s in a classroom, or in a doctor’s office, or in a business—we need to do more to help each other.”
You think it might be another cynical ploy. But this turns out to be a theme that she’s repeated throughout her life. In her announcement speech, Hillary talked about being raised to believe Methodist founder John Wesley’s admonition to “do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for as long as you can.” In her 1969 Wellesley Commencement, she called for a “mutuality of respect.” After working at the Children’s Defense Fund, she would often cite Marian Wright Edelman’s quote that “Service the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”
As first lady, Hillary spoke about the need for “a new ethos of individual responsibility,” “a great renaissance of caring in this country,” and “going back and actually living by the Golden Rule.” In the State Department, she’d talk about Alexis de Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart,” and says in Hard Chocies that “I’ve also returned again and again to this question of universality—how much we all have in common even if the circumstances of our lives may be different.”
If nothing else, you’ll notice that Hillary Clinton’s words are the very antithesis of the mean-spirited, xenophobic bile that spits from the mouth of Donald Trump.
And that’s my point.
Every election is a competition between two stories about America. And Trump already knows his by heart: He is a celebrity strongman who will single-handedly save the country from an establishment that is too weak, stupid, corrupt, and politically correct to let us blame the real source of our problems—Muslims and Mexicans and Black Lives Matter protesters; the media, business, and political elites from both parties.
Trump’s eventual opponent will need to tell a story about America that offers a powerful rebuke to the demagogue’s dark vision for the future. I like Bernie Sanders. I like a lot of what he has to say, I love his idealism, and I believe deeply in his emphasis on grassroots change. My problem is not that his message is unrealistic—it’s that a campaign which is largely about Main St. vs. Wall St. economics is too narrow and divisive for the story we need to tell right now.
In her campaign against Sanders, Hillary has begun to tell that broader, more inclusive story about the future. There she is, comforting a crying child in Nevada who worries that her parents might be deported. There she is in South Carolina, with five mothers of African-American children who died of gun violence, who told Mother Jones, “She listened and followed through for us. You can’t fake that…She cares. Not only does she care about victims of gun violence but she cares about women, she cares about African Americans. She cares!”
Hillary Clinton isn’t perfect. She isn’t flashy or entertaining. She isn’t cool or hip, so please stop forcing the poor woman to learn the Dab on Ellen. As someone who’s been in politics for a few decades, she’s made plenty of mistakes, and will probably make many more.
But Hillary is also more than just a policy wonk who can’t wait to start shuffling through white papers in the Oval Office. She cares. She tries. She perseveres. And now she has a chance to tell the story she’s always wanted about America: the story about a country that found the courage to turn away from our darkest impulses; that chose to embrace our growing diversity as a strength, not a weakness; that pushed the boundaries of opportunity outward and upward, until there are no more barriers, and no more ceilings.
At stake in this election is control of a Tea Party-run Congress, at least one Supreme Court vacancy that could tip the balance for a generation, and the very real chance that a highly unstable demagogue could become the 45th president of the United States. So while I may not have imagined myself saying this a few years ago, I certainly believe it now: It’s far more important to elect Hillary Clinton in 2016 than it was to elect Barack Obama in 2008.