Politics & Policy

Beta-Testing Hillary 2016

(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Her book and the accompanying tour have not performed well.

Sometimes a book tour is just a book tour. With Hillary Clinton, one never can tell.

Hard Choices, Mrs. Clinton’s second memoir, published in June, is a relentlessly inoffensive book. “It is actually the first [book] I have encountered,” writes Peggy Noonan, “that was written so a politician could say, ‘I wrote about this at length in my book.’” Which is approximately what the former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state has been saying at the 20 events she has held in ten different states over the past three weeks — that is, when she can squeeze in those prepackaged narratives between tone-deaf comments about her wealth.

Gaffes about her wealth — that she and her husband were “dead broke” upon leaving the White House, for instance, or that they are not “truly well off” — have dominated the coverage of Clinton’s book tour. “Gaffes,” though, are the subject of political campaigns. Which this was not — right?

Clinton has not said she is running for anything, but few people are persuaded. “I see it as the beginning of her campaign,” said a New Yorker who waited outside Manhattan’s Union Square Barnes & Noble overnight to see the author.

The best one can say about Hillary Clinton’s book and book tour is that they were intended to be exploratory, a beta-testing period for Hillary 2016. By studiously draining her book’s 600 pages of content, and preparing scripted narratives for hours of generally friendly interviews before generally friendly crowds, the Clinton analytics team seems to have been interested in determining whether Clinton is, sans substance, a compelling and attractive figure after 20-plus years in the national spotlight. Quick answer: Not as much as they thought.

While making allowance for the historical moment into which Barack Obama stepped in 2008 — Bush fatigue, nationwide war weariness, a shattering recession, etc. — the political genius of the Obama campaign, as many conservatives noted at the time, was to claim very little political territory. Rather, Obama ran as a brand, an idea, onto which voters could project whatever they liked; he became the customizable avatar of 70 million Americans.

Clinton cannot do that, which is the lesson her handlers — if they are observant — must have learned from this tour. Their candidate has not the charisma, the eloquence, or the subtlety to be all things to all people. She is a career politician, and years in the public square entail sclerosis. Even the most protean politician is, by dint of the years’ knocks, revealed to have a definite shape. Clinton’s 1970s-era liberalism is by now readily apparent to anyone with eyes to see. And it would seem that a bit of old-fashioned competence would, given the current White House circus, go a long way.

Yet the assiduous attempt to avoid mention of Clinton’s record hints that Clinton operatives are aware of another of their candidate’s besetting problems: Her record simply is not that impressive. She has lots of “experience” doing notable things, but none of them are bona fide achievements. The answers to questions one might have about her record are, she suggests, in the book. But beyond establishing that Clinton has made some “hard choices,” it is not clear that any of them have resulted in any lasting benefits.

The book tour was designed to test the effectiveness of the Hillary personality cult, to answer the question, Is Hillary Clinton a marketable brand? As book sales plummet (Hard Choices sales dropped 40 percent in its second week on the shelves) and gaffes dominate the media coverage, the answer is no. The middling performance of both book and book tour suggests that Hillary Clinton is in a difficult spot: She is too boring simply to run on personal magnetism, too familiar to plausibly “reinvent” herself, and, if she could reinvent herself, not sufficiently silver-tongued to sell it. If this was the campaign’s beta test, Hillary 2016 may already be in need of a reboot.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.