It is a frequently preached political mantra that the first thing a candidate has to do is let everyone know why they are running. Bernie Sanders is running for president to reduce income inequality, and Donald Trump is running to cut deals that will “make America great again”. Ted Cruz is running to promote conservative (but not necessarily Republican) values, and Bobby Jindal is running with the desperate hope that someone will notice his feeble attempt at the presidency. But why is Hillary Clinton in the race? Though she has certainly answered this question many times, it’s still hard to settle on a single answer.
For now, the best answer seems to be that Clinton is running to be the champion of working America. Whether voicing her commitment to “make the economy work for everyday Americans” or for “nurses who work the night shift”, she used some variant of the word “work” or “worker” 35 times in her rollout speech. However, as with previous editions of Hillary Clinton, voters may have trouble relating to her identity as a working class defender.
Although Clinton’s record is fairly liberal as a whole, her most recent job was secretary of state, and she spent most of the 2008 campaign selling the idea that she was “tough and experienced.” The most famous moment of her Senate tenure, particularly for Democratic primary voters, was her vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution, and during her eight years there she was known more as a pragmatist than a champion of the working class. It could be accurately pointed out that this abbreviated narrative of Clinton’s political career leaves out a range of impressive liberal accomplishments. However, as someone who’s been out of public office since 2013 and had limited influence on domestic affairs since her departure from the Senate years ago, the best known moments of her recent political career don’t lend themselves to this picture of her as a fighter for the middle-class.
On top of this, there’s the additional problem of “Clinton Inc.”, the expansive political and financial empire built by the country’s preeminent power couple. Clinton is a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady whose husband served five terms as a governor and two as president. She’s been a nationally known figure for over two decades and, since Bill left the White House, the couple has amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from speaking fees paid by major corporations. The amount of money Hillary Clinton has charged for single speeches (her highest fee was $335,000) is actually slightly more than Bernie Sanders’ entire net worth (estimated at $330,000). Impressive as her political and professional career has been, voters may not easily see a working class hero in a woman who has a personal net worth that exceeds $30 million and can earn the annual salary of 20 fast-food employees with an hour-long speech.
Related to the problems posed by Clinton Inc. is the difficulty in crafting a new identify for someone who has been in the public eye for decades. Millions of voters had their first impression of Hillary Clinton during the 1992 election, and it’s difficult to build a campaign message tailored to the present with someone who’s been a public figure for so long. Despite her tremendous early advantage in the 2008 race, her message of strength and competence was a poor fit in an election defined by Bush fatigue, economic upheaval, and a desire for change that Barack Obama clearly harnessed. However, her lengthy tenure in the spotlight prevented her from making an argument that she was a “change candidate.” Seven years later, with income inequality as a major issue, Clinton’s progressive/populist rhetoric may ring a bit hollow, particularly given her highly lucrative tour of the corporate speaking circuit. Unlike other candidates who are relatively unknown on the national stage, Clinton’s ability to reinvent herself is constrained by the past.
It hasn’t helped matters that Clinton has often played the part of the out-to-touch elitist with her campaign missteps, such as the widely-mocked assertion that her and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, or her casual comment that she hasn’t driven a car in over 20 years. Although these are relatively minor gaffes in the grand scheme of a presidential campaign, they also send the signal to voters that she may have trouble relating to their concerns. After all, how does someone who’s been chauffeured everywhere since the mid-90s understand the dread of seeing the check engine light come on? Recall George H.W. Bush’s alleged struggles with a supermarket scanner and inability to say how much a gallon of milk cost. While scanners and milk prices may not have been leading issues in the 1992 election, Bush contributed to the perception of him as an out-of-touch patrician, and sharpened the contrast between him and his much younger and more affable opponent.
This isn’t to say that Clinton can’t craft a winning message or build a compelling campaign narrative in the months ahead. If she secures the nomination, she may emerge as the default working-class candidate if the tumultuous GOP primary yields a Republican candidate who follows in the footsteps of plutocratic forbears such as Mitt Romney. However, the endless and exhausting scandal over her email server, minor but persistent political missteps, and the rise of Sanders mean Clinton has to answer the question of why she’s running with something more compelling and authentic than poll-tested platitudes about “helping working families”. Why is Hillary Clinton running? She may know, but voters don’t.