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The Devil You Know

AP/Carolyn Kaster

AP/Carolyn Kaster

It’s not often that name recognition is a bad thing. But from a marketing standpoint, Hillary Clinton is stuck in a rut.

Like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, her name is known worldwide. But it’s doubtful that either of those brands would, like Hillary, consistently register unfavorability ratings among American consumers in the range of 40 percent.

When familiar entities unveil new products, shoppers are notoriously discerning. Diet Coke worked, but Vanilla Coke flopped.

But when a politician suddenly adopts a new position, voters can be even more skeptical. A hawk cannot become a dove, nor can a friend of Wall Street become a foe.

Hillary’s core problem, in other words, is that she’s simply too familiar to American voters, who after two terms of one leader tend to want something “new.” And there’s very little she can do to reposition herself in the marketplace.

A presidential re-election — whether of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush or Obama — generally suggests majority satisfaction with the officeholder. The last time voters chose continuity over change in an open-seat race was the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988. Al Gore, of course, handily won the popular vote in 2000, but throughout that fateful campaign, he went to great lengths to distance himself from Bill Clinton.

The failures of both John Kerry to dethrone Bush II and John McCain to defeat Obama are also instructive. It’s really hard for a candidate to promise a new direction — or say it’s “time to change the way things are done in Washington” — when he or she has been inside the Beltway for the last few decades.

As Doug Henwood spelled out in the November issue of Harper’s, Hillary has been horse-trading ever since she and the “Man from Hope” rode into town. In her bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary’s chief selling points were her experience and toughness, as well as her (unsuccessful) attempt to push national health care during Bill Clinton’s first term.

Obamacare has now rendered Hillary’s health care plan obsolete, and at this point she’s not particularly identified with any issue. And so as a candidate, she would have very little to sell other than her experience, a quality that doesn’t exactly create buzz or sizzle and is unlikely to go viral.

In their storied showdown for the 2008 nod, Obama had several advantages over Hillary. He had opposed the Iraq War, putting him in sync with the party base; his mixed-race identity fit well with a candidacy vowing hope and change; and, last but not least, he hadn’t been in D.C. for very long.

Obama’s candidacy thus had the allure of the new, plus a potentially fresh approach to the security state, corporate regulation and growing inequality. Some would say buyer’s remorse set in days after the 2008 election, when Obama started surrounding himself with the Clinton-era gang of Wall Street insiders.

The gap between the promise of Obama and the reality of his tenure is obviously worth keeping in mind as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren seeks to reignite the fires of his 2008 campaign. Many members and Obama campaign staffers are already signing on to help Warren’s cause. Warren has repeatedly, emphatically denied any interest in running, but she is under tremendous pressure to do so. If Warren does campaign, Wall Street regulation could serve this time as the issue that steers the progressive base away from Hillary and, in this case, toward the fresh-faced Warren.

Like Obama during his first run, Warren can still serve up a variation on the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” routine. At this stage, she can make grand promises, and many consumers will gobble them up. Placed on the same shelf with Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren is clearly the newer brand. Rather than Campbell’s Soup, she is Progresso.

Theodore Hamm
Theodore Hamm is the founding editor of The Brooklyn Rail and the author of "The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore, and Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics" (2008) and…
Theodore Hamm

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