Structure – that’s what’s missing. After high school for some, and after college for others, and for some of us, after graduate school, it’s a lifetime of work, of things that must be done, on time – about forty-five years of that. Then you pack it in and you’re free to do what you want, or to do nothing much at all, at your own pace, not that it matters. Nothing now depends on what you do, on schedule or not. You’re free – and all the days start to blend together. The mornings are worst, at dawn. Is this Tuesday, or Friday? There’s that bit of residual panic from all those years when that actually mattered, and then it’s time for black coffee and the morning paper, on whatever day it is, with the news on television in the corner – the cable news channels reporting the crises of the moment. Ah, so that’s what everyone will be talking about today. That’s what matters.
That’s the thin tether back to the world of choices and consequences. A few dozen young American men have decided that they want to be part of ISIS – and ISIS is happy with that – so there’s going to be trouble. White cops keep shooting unarmed black kids and black men quite dead, and say they had to, and there’s going to be even more trouble. There will be another Baltimore. Saudi Arabia is going to invade Yemen, further escalating the regional war between the Sunni and Shia folks that we somehow got involved in – this is not good – but we may be able to reach an agreement with Iran on stopping their development of nuclear weapons, but not if our Republicans and Israel have anything to say about it. Agreements are useless? That’s the word. No on mentions the alternative and North Korea now has their nukes, sort of. That too is not good. And twenty or thirty people are running for president already, a year and half out, and they’re all calling each other fools and crooks and whatnot.
Okay, that’s what’s going on out there where people are still doing things. But wait – everyone is talking about Tom Brady, the awesome quarterback who wins Super Bowls again and again. That new report threatens Tom Brady’s legacy and the Patriots’ reputation – because Brady may be complicit in the action of his equipment guys to lower the air pressure in the footballs he used in a key game, just a little bit, so he could get a better grip. He cheated. No one can trust him anymore. It was all a lie – all of it.
Really? The advantage gained was minimal, if there was one. He’s still the best quarterback anyone has seen in ages – and he fudged a bit around the edges this one time, and he’s a self-absorbed overpaid shallow jerk who can be pleasant at times, who is good at his job. The Patriots would have won that game anyway – but everyone seems to be up in arms about this. This is a matter of trust betrayed, and a matter of integrity. Good people don’t cheat, so even if this is far less than a minor matter, this is a matter of principle, and thus the Patriots are worried that he could be suspended for six to eight games – or not. No one knows, but someone understands:
Chris Christie just threw a Hail Mary in New Hampshire. Behind in the polls, with his former staffers facing indictments in one court and his signature pension reform facing implosion in another, the New Jersey governor rushed to defend a scandal-plagued leader Granite State voters can definitely get behind: Tom Brady.
“I think there’s a little bit too much attention on this,” said Christie of reports that the New England Patriots quarterback was probably complicit in a plot to tamper with the footballs he used in games, calling the scandal “way, way overblown” in a Thursday interview…
“I don’t think anybody is really trying to say that Tom Brady won four super bowls or became a future Hall of Famer because the balls were a little under inflated,” Christie added. “I think the media and others love for somebody who is married to a beautiful model, who is richer than you can imagine and who is a future Hall of Famer, to take a couple of shots at him? People like that every once in a while.”
Christie went on to say that people are just jealous of Tom Brady’s almost too perfect life – implying that he understands such things, given his own life and how people are always trying to tear him down. Donald Trump said the same – Tom Brady is “a friend” and a “total winner” – so lesser, jealous people try to tear him down. He too knows. Winners fudge a bit now and then. It happens. They’re still winners.
Admittedly, the anchors on the cable news shows covering all this seemed a bit embarrassed by having to talk for hours about this nonsense – the world is tearing itself apart and we may all die – but they soldiered on. The news is also what people want to know, not only what they need to know, as their advertisers tell them. But under all the nonsense there was an interesting implicit question. Is trust really an issue if someone gets that job done, and does it well? We may be asking too much when we ask for total integrity. Hillary Clinton may be just fine.
The National Journal’s Ron Brownstein explored that – Hillary Clinton’s personal credibility seems linked to the “honesty and trustworthiness” of her husband. His long history is dragging her down, or should be, if you listen to the Republicans, but Brownstein isn’t so sure:
On the day Bill Clinton was reelected by more than eight million votes in 1996, a solid 54 percent majority of voters said in exit polling that they did not consider him honest and trustworthy.
It’s possible that voters have since grown less tolerant of perceived ethical missteps, such as the questions Hillary Clinton is facing over her private State Department email account and the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising practices. But it’s more likely that empathy, faith in her competency, and ideological compatibility will count more than integrity in shaping voters’ verdict on Hillary Clinton – just as they did for her husband.
Few presidents ever faced as many distinct ethical allegations from their opponents and the press as Bill Clinton did during his two terms. Those charges created persistently high doubts about his honesty and morality. But none of them produced a fatal wound.
There’s a reason for that:
Many factors allowed Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach. But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans. For Hillary Clinton, it’s probably more important to match his strength on that front than to improve on the weak perceptions of his character.
History shows that:
The exit poll conducted the day Bill Clinton won reelection in 1996 captured the consistently conflicted American assessment of him, and offers clues about how the country may weigh its similarly ambivalent feelings about his wife. Clinton dispatched Republican nominee Bob Dole that day by a solid 49-41 margin. Yet in the survey, 60 percent of voters said they did not believe Clinton had told the truth about the controversial “Whitewater” investment in Arkansas, and just 41 percent said they considered him honest and trustworthy (far less than the 54 percent who did not.)
Those doubts cost Clinton some, particularly with independents. But according to the exit poll, Clinton won nearly one-fifth of those voters who did not consider him trustworthy and almost one-fourth who doubted him on Whitewater. How did Clinton attract so many voters dubious about his character? The answer is that they placed higher priority on other assessments of him. Almost three-fifths of voters said issues mattered to them more than character – and they backed Clinton by more than a 3-1 margin. And while Dole won by more than 10-1 among those who said honesty most influenced their vote, that group represented just one-fifth of the electorate. Clinton amassed similarly lopsided margins among the combined 35 percent of voters who said their decision was most influenced by the candidate’s vision for the future, being in touch, and caring about people like me.
And it didn’t stop there:
A similar dynamic sustained Clinton through his impeachment ordeal two years later. Public doubts about Clinton’s character skyrocketed after his affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed. But as Stanford University political scientist Richard Brody wrote then, “the public’s view of President Clinton’s compassion and strength of leadership” actually improved through the tumult. The share of Americans saying Clinton “understands the problems of people like you” rose to about 60 percent in ABC/Washington Post polls through 1998. Most Americans, in other words, seemed willing to look past Clinton’s flaws so long as they felt he was looking out for their interests – and capable of advancing them.
That’s the challenge here:
Today, Hillary Clinton is stronger on the second part of that equation than the first. Since the 2008 Democratic primary, she has scored well as a strong and decisive leader. But Americans have consistently given her more equivocal grades for empathy. When the ABC/Washington Post poll last asked in March whether Hillary Clinton “understood the problems of people like you,” just 47 percent said yes, far fewer than for her husband even during impeachment. In this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a comparable 43 percent described her as “compassionate enough to understand average people.”
She has some work to do:
Fewer Americans may view Hillary than Bill Clinton (at least in his heyday) as empathetic partly because she, like most politicians, can’t match his unique ability to convince voters he could “feel your pain.” She may also suffer because the allegations confronting the Clintons now include charges that they have used their contacts to enrich themselves, or because Americans have seen her in powerful positions for so long they can’t easily imagine her relating to their struggles.
Brownstein isn’t sure she up to that. Laughing that he hasn’t driven a car since 1996 was a mistake – and you don’t say that your husband needs those six-figure speeches to “pay our bills” and so on. She doesn’t have the common touch, but that’s one thing she needs to make the rest all go away:
It’s almost certainly more important for Hillary Clinton to persuade Americans that she understands their lives, and has solutions relevant to their challenges, than to dispel the doubts about her integrity. Bill Clinton’s experience suggests that if Americans believe she can walk in their shoes, they will accept plenty of mud on her own.
Forgive him that metaphor. The rest is straightforward enough. If you win one for the team, no one will care if you tamper with the footballs a bit. These things happen. Empathy matters more, but Ed Kilgore offers this:
You could make a pretty good argument that ideological compatibility and its first cousin, partisanship – along with (Democrats hope) some good luck on the economy and the identity of the opposition – will matter as much or more. And in terms of partisanship, it’s important to remember that polarized voting is much more prevalent now than in 1996, and that perceptions of “honesty and trustworthiness” may be an effect as much as a cause of voting preferences.
In the end, perceptions of this or that candidate-characteristic may be like “enthusiasm” as a determinant of voting behavior: it matters at some minimal level, but once a certain threshold is crossed, it may not matter at all.
If so, then “empathy” doesn’t matter. You want to win one for the home team, so empathic policies matter, and Jonathan Allen says that’s what she’s working on:
First there was her embrace of same-sex marriage in a video for the Human Rights Campaign shortly after she left the State Department in 2013. Then she started talking tough on corporate tax dodgers. And in just the past couple of weeks she’s said she would protect more undocumented immigrants from deportation, reverse elements of her husband’s 1994 anti-crime law, and equip police departments across the country with body cameras.
Separately, each item is a small but significant step toward a core Democratic constituency: gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, and unions. Taken together, they’re a giant leap to the left.
But this is not what you think:
The quickly gathering conventional wisdom about Clinton’s hop, skip, and jump to the left is that she’s thinking about the Democratic primary – specifically, how to avoid getting blindsided like she did in 2008, when Barack Obama took her out in the trial heat. But there aren’t any Barack Obamas on the Democratic horizon, and Clinton’s commanding lead in the Democratic primary field – fueled by numbers that are highest among self-described liberals – makes it hard to believe she’s really looking over her shoulder.
The truth is that her move to the left is a general-election strategy that has the benefit of working well in the primary, too.
The idea may be that she’ll never be the mensch her husband was, but policy can stand in for empathy:
The fuller view shows a tactical decision to update her positions in areas where the country has become more progressive since her last run for the White House, and to play up the parts of her agenda that appeal to core Democratic voters. If the moment were right to talk about her muscular approach to US foreign policy – and surely that time will come – there’s little doubt her team would be doing just that.
Here’s the gamble Clinton’s taking: targeted policy shifts will activate key Democratic voting constituencies early in the campaign without alienating swing voters. If it works, African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and straight white men (the group that seems to like her the least among Democrats) will see her as a true champion and remain energized through the general election. Her campaign views the risk of pushing away independents as minimal compared with the advantage of rallying Democrats.
“Over time, the landscape has shifted on so many of these issues that now Democrats don’t have to hide from them,” one campaign official said. “The data is pretty clear: the independent voters are on our side on issues like gay marriage. So leaning into them comes with a benefit, not a cost.”
Meaning that, at least on these issues, the same positions could rally the Democratic base now and appeal to independents in November 2016.
Allen notes that the odds are in her favor:
57 percent of respondents said undocumented immigrants should be able to stay in the country and apply for citizenship, according to a CBS/New York Times poll released this week, while 29 percent said they should be deported.
63 percent told Pew last year that it would be good to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and, according to a December CBS poll, 91 percent of Americans favored universal use of body cameras by police. By comparison, Pope Francis’s favorability rating among American Catholics was at 90 percent at last check.
58 percent of Americans favor a Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, according to an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Moreover, Republicans have adopted similar positions on some of the issues – and declined to attack Clinton on others. For example, Rand Paul has been on the leading edge of bipartisan congressional efforts to change sentencing laws and has advocated for equipping police with body cameras.
When Clinton announced her support for Obama’s executive action on immigration – and said she would go even further – most Republican candidates didn’t react (a telling indication of the tension between reaching out to Latino voters and satisfying Republican base voters who do not support efforts to give legal status to unauthorized immigrants who are already in the US).
Still, a counterattack is possible:
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist, said the danger for Clinton isn’t necessarily in the particular policies she’s advocating for now but rather in reinforcing a sense among some voters that she’s too willing to change her position.
“This is precisely what voters don’t like about politicians,” Conway said, adding that Clinton “seems to be incredibly reactive” rather than leading the way on issue.
Fellow GOP pollster and strategist David Winston said Clinton may be placating base constituencies now to make up for centrist positions she’ll take later in the campaign. And, he said, the piecemeal approach undermines Clinton’s effort to create a cohesive narrative for her campaign.
“The problem she’s had overall with her rollout is there’s no theme to this. There’s no sense of what’s the direction, what’s the vision,” Winston said. “As a result, everything seems very isolated in its context. I don’t think that’s a good thing for any candidate.”
Sure, but she may get the last laugh:
The bet is that reaching out to particular constituencies will help energize them for 2016. Obama’s ability to turn out minority voters was a key part of his 2012 reelection victory in a year in which the number of black and Hispanic voters went up by more 3 million from the previous election and the number of white voters dropped by 2 million. Clinton would very much like to sustain or improve on those figures, and taking up causes important to the black and Hispanic communities is one way to try.
The Republicans have no answer to that but… Benghazi! Of course, as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did use her personal email account when she should have used the state department’s account. And there’s the Clinton Foundation. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, although no one has been able to find any at all.
And Tom Brady has the equipment guys lower the air pressure in those footballs a tiny bit that one time, so he could get a better grip on them, not that it mattered a whole lot. He was going to win anyway. So will Hillary Clinton.