Published on
The New York Times

Haven't We Heard This Voice Before?

Frank Rich

She had me at "Well, that hurts my feelings."

One cliché about Hillary Clinton is true. For whatever reason - and it's no crime - the spontaneous, outgoing person who impresses those who meet her offstage often evaporates when she steps into the public spotlight. But in the crucial debate before the New Hampshire primary, the private Clinton popped out for the first time in the 2008 campaign. She parried a male inquisitor's questioning of her likability by being, of all things, likable.

Not only did Mrs. Clinton betray some (but not too many) hurt feelings with genuine humor, she upped the ante by flattering Barack Obama as "very likable." Which prompted the Illinois senator to match Mrs. Clinton's most human moment to date with the most inhuman of his own. To use family-newspaper language, he behaved like a jerk - or, to be more precise, like Rick Lazio, the now-forgotten adversary who cleared Mrs. Clinton's path to the Senate by boorishly waving a paper in her face during a 2000 debate.

Mr. Obama's grudging "You're likable enough, Hillary" made him look like "an ex-husband that was turning over the alimony check," in the formulation of Paul Begala, a Clinton backer. The moment stood in stark contrast to Mr. Obama's behavior in the corresponding debate just before the Iowa caucuses. There he raised his head high to defend Joe Biden's honor when Mr. Biden was questioned about his tic of spouting racial malapropisms.

Whatever the precise impact of the incessant video replays of Mr. Obama's condescension or of Mrs. Clinton's later quasi tears, Tuesday's vote speaks for itself. In her 2.6 percentage-point, 7,500-vote victory, Mrs. Clinton beat Mr. Obama among women voters by 12 percentage points only five days after he carried them by 5 points in Iowa. As we reopen the gender wars, let's not forget that it's 2008, not 1968. There are actually some men who are offended by sexist male behavior too. Or by the female misogyny exemplified by the South Carolina woman who asked John McCain in November, "How do we beat the bitch?"

And so an exciting and healthy mano-a-mano battle for the Democratic presidential nomination is finally on. (The biggest losers in New Hampshire's primary, no one need be reminded, were pollsters and the press.) But if Mrs. Clinton prompted many to give her candidacy a fresh look in the New Hampshire stretch, her victory speech was, to skeptics like myself, a step back. When she talked about how "the process" prompted her to find her "own voice," I had to ask the same question Clinton fans ask of Mr. Obama: where's the beef? Though her campaign gave Madeleine Albright and Wesley Clark the hook and replaced them with a backdrop of youthful eye candy on Tuesday night, Mrs. Clinton soon retreated into the same old pro forma Clinton talking points, nominally updated from the 1990s.

Voice is not merely a matter of presenting a softer persona, speaking eloquently, looking authentic on television, cracking jokes or shedding tears - worthwhile attributes for any candidate, including Mr. Obama. Voice is also about content, and in this election, content may yet be king. Though gender, race, age and likability are all factors, the fundamentals of what the public is looking for in the presidential marketplace remains more stable than our economy week after week.

As Mrs. Clinton would say, let's have a reality check. The exit poll of those who voted on Tuesday - not to be confused with the pre-primary polls that misfired - showed that Democrats are still looking for change (54 percent) over experience (19 percent) and that they overwhelmingly associate Mr. Obama with the former and Mrs. Clinton with the latter. By change, they don't mean merely a tuneup. As the Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey of both Democrats and Republicans found last month, the percentage of voters who favor "small adjustments" in America (24) or "moderate corrections" (29) is swamped by the 46 percent who seek "major reforms" and a "brand-new" approach.

In Tuesday's exit polling, half of Republican voters said even they'd had enough of President Bush. That's why "change" the word, if not the deed, keeps proliferating in both parties like kudzu. In last weekend's twin ABC debates, Mr. Obama's 14 invocations of "change" or "changes" were surpassed by Mrs. Clinton's 25 and nearly matched by Mitt Romney's 10. The question for the two top Democrats, whose specific positions on most issues vary only by increments, is who can best convince the country that they can deliver that change. Mr. Obama's powerful speeches alone can't accomplish that, and neither can Mrs. Clinton's born-again vow to make her emotions and campaign appearances more accessible to voters and the press.


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In the nightmare scenario for their party, they could both fail or take each other out or self-destruct, inducing the public to settle for a Republican who can somehow persuade voters that he's the change agent by default. It behooves Democrats to notice that Mr. McCain's brand as a straight-talking rebel is so strong that even those voters in the New Hampshire G.O.P. primary who don't like Mr. Bush or the Iraq war gave him most of their votes despite his outspoken support of both.

However unpredictable the race as a whole may be, the vision thing still seems central to the Democrats' change sweepstakes. Whether you regard it as inspirational or pablum, Mr. Obama's vision has been consistent since the 2004 convention speech that introduced him to the country well before his presidential candidacy: a hopeful reconciliation of red and blue Americans joined in a united effort to address and heal the domestic and international cancers that have metastasized during the bitter partisanship of the Bush-Rove years.

Mrs. Clinton's vision, so far anyway, is exactly the reverse of her opponent's big picture: a long itemized shopping list of government programs (few of which any Democratic candidate would disagree with) that are nakedly targeted to appeal to every Election Day constituency. This presentation of the liberal catechism reached its apotheosis in a Clinton campaign ad in December. Mrs. Clinton was shown doling out Christmas presents labeled "Universal Health Care" and "Alternative Energy" before delivering the punch line, "Where did I put universal pre-K?" (At least she stopped short of regifting us with Al Gore's old "Social Security lockbox.")

Every politician employs pollsters, but Mrs. Clinton, tellingly, has one, Mark Penn, as her top campaign strategist. As Sally Bedell Smith reminds us in her book about the Clintons, "For Love of Politics," it was Mr. Penn who helped shape the 1996 Bill Clinton campaign in which "soccer moms" were identified and wooed with such Cracker Jack prizes as school uniforms and V-chips to monitor TV violence. For Mrs. Clinton's Senate campaign four years later, it was also Mr. Penn's market testing that, in Ms. Smith's telling, "crafted anodyne, bite-sized messages for Hillary." The overall message uniting the small-bore promises, such as it was, remains unchanged today: competence, experience, wonky proficiency.

But we're no longer in 2000, the lull before the 9/11 storm, let alone 1996. Nonetheless, Mr. Penn, who remains the chief executive of the corporate P.R. giant Burson-Marsteller even as he works for the Clinton campaign, still peddles the 1.0 edition of his philosophy. In his business tome "Microtrends" published in September, he glories in "the niching of America," observing that "there is no one America anymore" but "hundreds of Americas." He postulates that "Americans overwhelmingly favor small, reasonable ideas over big, grandiose schemes."

As a theory for marketing Burson-Marsteller corporate clients like Microsoft and AT&T - or for selling a third Clinton term - Mr. Penn's vision may make sense. What Mr. Obama is betting on instead is a hunger, however dreamy, for one America, not hundreds of niches, aspiring to the big, grandiose scheme of finding a common good. The defining question of his campaign is not just whether he can make this vision real but whether he has the ability as a leader to give it intellectual heft and to carry it out. We'll find out soon enough. Either way, the national yearning for a more perfect union is unmistakable. Such is the decisive backlash against these divisive years in which anyone who fails to agree with the White House has been portrayed as un-American, if not with the terrorists.

In Mrs. Clinton's down-to-earth micropolitics, polls often seem to play the leadership role. That leaves her indecisive when one potential market is pitched against another. Witness her equivocation over Iraq, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and even Cubs vs. Yankees. Add to this habitual triangulation the ugly campaigning of the men around her - Mr. Penn's sleazy invocation of "cocaine" on MSNBC, Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" rant falsifying Mr. Obama's record on Iraq - and you don't have change. You have the acrimonious 1990s that the Republicans are dying to refight, because that's the only real tactic they have.

It would be good for both her campaign and the presidential race in general if Mrs. Clinton does find her own voice. We'll know she has done so when it doesn't sound so uncannily like Bill Clinton and Mark Penn.

--Frank Rich

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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