In the course of noodling the question “Why is Hillary Clinton unpopular?” David Brooks offers two “paradoxes.” He writes:
There are two paradoxes to her unpopularity. First, she was popular not long ago. As secretary of state she had a 66 percent approval rating. Even as recently as March 2015 her approval rating was at 50 and her disapproval rating was at 39.
It’s only since she launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to impress the American people that she has made herself so strongly disliked.
The second paradox is that, agree with her or not, she’s dedicated herself to public service. From advocate for children to senator, she has pursued her vocation tirelessly. It’s not the “what” that explains her unpopularity, it’s the “how” — the manner in which she has done it.
But what exactly do so many have against her?
I would begin my explanation with this question: Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun? We know what Obama does for fun — golf, basketball, etc. We know, unfortunately, what Trump does for fun.
Brooks goes on to argue that the real reason people don’t like Hillary is that she is — wait for it — a “workaholic.” Brooks tells us that this malady “is a form of emotional self-estrangement” and then writes some interesting things about workaholics.
With all due respect to Brooks, this is some mighty weak sauce. Frankly, the idea that someone as smart as Brooks could think Clinton’s unpopularity is a deep and impenetrable mystery is the real mystery here. And the suggestion that if she had more hobbies, people would like her more is pretty hilarious. Break out the Hummel collection! Brooks even notes that we know Obama’s hobbies — has that helped his popularity? Do his poll numbers go up after every golf outing?
But I don’t want to skip the first paradox of Clinton’s popularity, in part because it offers an opportunity for me to say “I told you so” — something I don’t get to do much these days. Brooks thinks it’s bizarre that Clinton’s poll numbers have plummeted since she left the State Department. I think it was utterly predictable — and I predicted it, often. Clinton was popular because she sat above the fray. From a USA Today column I wrote in 2013 (emphasis mine):
Her supporters cite her high approval ratings upon stepping down as secretary of State. But that popularity almost surely has more to do with the fact she stayed out of the unappetizing food fight of domestic politics over the past five years.
George W. Bush’s approval ratings have gone up over the past few years for the same reasons. But if Bush publicly started taking controversial positions, it’s doubtful that his approval trends would continue. The same holds for Clinton. The sooner she starts acting the partisan she is — and has to be to win the Democratic nomination — the sooner she will return to her role as a polarizing figure.
Clinton’s performance as secretary of State almost surely has nothing to do with her poll numbers because her performance was awfully lackluster. It’s damning with faint praise that often the first — and sometimes only — thing her promoters cite as an accomplishment is that she flew a “million miles” as secretary of State. Who cares? Talk about celebrating quantity over quality. Her tenures as senator and first lady are pretty light on major accomplishments as well.
Hillary Clinton is unpopular because she’s inauthentic and a very bad and brazen liar. Brooks is right that Clinton has dedicated her life to what he calls “public service.” And that’s fair enough. But she’s also dedicated her life to the pursuit of power — and it shows. She’s a partisan, vindictive, and somewhat paranoid public figure who is about as good at faking sincerity as she is at faking laughter. I’ve been hearing for years that Clinton needs to show “the real Hillary.” Her own consultants talked last summer about releasing “Hillary 5.0.”
I suppose Hillary’s apparent workaholicism plays some role in her unpopularity. But, other than Brooks, does anyone think it’s anything but a minor symptom of her bigger problems? After all, Washington is full of popular workaholics. Clinton’s personality isn’t unpopular because she works so hard. She’s unpopular because her personality needs so much work.