In the Arena

That Sound You Hear…

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is the zeitgeist shifting on Hillary Clinton. It’s not just the laugh, either. Today both Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd weigh in or, er, on. And you can just feel it coming: a major media style-assault on the Senator. Whether you like it or not, style is an important question in presidential politics, if asked correctly. If posed incorrectly–to the exclusion of substance, for example–it can lead to the sort of trivial hen-pecking that so many people rightfully hate about political coverage. So let’s try to unpack some of this and make some determinations about what’s legit and what’s not.

I share many of Rich/Dowd’s stylistic concerns about Clinton, but these are ultimately peripheral. Yes, the laugh is awkward (when staged) and yes, her campaign is focus-grouped up the wazoo. But then, so is Obama’s and the campaigns of all the other candidates flush enough to hire political consultants. (Obama’s a more elegant speaker than Clinton but about as spontaneous as a fence post, which is a real problem for a candidate who is supposed to be the Next New Thing.)

The style question would be far more serious if Clinton were appreciably more cautious in policy terms than her opponents, but she isn’t. Rich seems miffed that Clinton waited before releasing her health plan–but it’s a good plan, arguably the best submitted this year, and it took a fair amount of courage to release it since the Republicans have already started the Hillarycare/socialized medicine riff. Her position on Iraq is also solid, responsible…and not much different from those offered by her opponents (with the irresponsible exceptions of Bill Richardson and John Edwards, who really don’t seem up to speed on the implications of the rapid drawdowns that they’re advocating).

This is not to say that Clinton is flamingly frank, or brave, or even close. Obama has been willing to disagree with the all-powerful and mostly brain-dead teachers unions. He supports merit pay– what an outrageous idea! And Clinton did seem too cute by about 3/4s when she refused to answer Russert’s social security question in last Wednesday’s MSNBC debate.

In Clinton’s case, though, her caution is more noticeable because of the cool, bionic quality of her public persona. That is a real problem for her: Whether we like it or not–and as I’ve written umpteen times before–the Presidency is different from any other office. It is far more personal. The President lives in our homes for four years and the public makes its decision, at least in part, on which politician it wants hanging around the kitchen table. In that regard, I think Clinton’s seriousness and practicality–the sense that she knows what she’s doing–will work to her advantage in the months to come….and may even be enough to overcome the perennial TV-age desire for a warm or charming candidate.

What works against her–and Dowd is astute on this–is the sense that she comes not only with Bill attached, but also with a permanent carnival: All the screeching and screaming from the right and from those in the media obsessed with the Clinton family follies. After the past eight years, the public may be tired of a perpetually embattled Presidency. No, check that: It’s really the past 16 years that this food fight has been going on.

Clinton’s challenge is to show that she can transcend the food fight. Her opponents’ challenge is to show they’re competent to offer a fresh, less fraught political atmosphere. I’ve avoided “Hillary is a lock” statements for just this reason: The real campaign is just beginning. The public now has four or five months to focus on this race and decide if it believes Clinton is (a) competent, (b) someone with the human qualities we want in a leader or (c) too wrapped up in the history of the past 16 years, a singularly dreadful period in American politics. I have no predictions on the outcome. Nor–somewhat to my own surprise–do I have much of a personal preference.

I do think, however, that we really better get this decision right.