“Let’s have a conversation,” Hillary Clinton proposed to the crowd of mostly UCSB students and Santa Barbara locals, utilizing a line she used to kick off her campaign in a videotaped message on HillaryClinton.com last year. Although when the Senator spoke on campus last Thursday it was more of a political rally than a “conversation,” her tone was at least pleasantly conversational.
Although noticeably soft-spoken and comforting, there were several instances in which Hillary would make an especially strong argument or resonating point to resounding cheers. Suddenly, Clinton would raise her voice, nearly drowned out by applause, in an impassioned declaration of this policy or a heartfelt disavowal of that injustice. These moments were the best of the rally, yet each ended with Clinton quickly lowering her voice and gently continuing her speech. After years of being mocked for the “shrillness” of her pitch, she seems to be making a concerted effort in her campaign stops to pay close attention to her tone, frequently appearing almost afraid to get excited. It’s as if her advisors constantly remind her: “Persuade, don’t try to inspire.”
In some ways, that’s the sharpest difference between Clinton and her chief rival for the Democratic nomination: Barack Obama. Those who caught Senator Obama’s Santa Barbara rally this past summer can attest to his utter command of the stage. Obama oozes charisma out his pores and has rightfully been regarded as one of the great orators of our time. His speeches may consist of much of the same hyperbolic banality politicians frequently invoke – but hell, you won’t realize it until hours after he finishes speaking. He’s inspirational when stumping and invites his audience not merely to be part of a campaign, but a whole movement. Surely this is a major reason why Obama was able to win the Iowa caucuses. Most of the voters in the state had seen all the candidates speak – many multiple times – and Obama’s in-person pitch is one that’s hard to best.
Hillary’s strategy for the nomination is strikingly different, as reflected in her speech last week. Strength and experience are the backbone of her campaign’s narrative. Whereas Barack Obama will try to inspire you, Clinton will convince you of her qualifications. Like a job interview, she fielded questions at the end of her rally, playing the competent technocrat in answers rooted in her unarguable intellect and broad depth of policy knowledge.
Her speech seemed restrained but not necessarily stiff. There were even some moments when she brought the funny. She cracked a joke about Dick Cheney shooting that guy in the face, and she made a statement proclaiming, “India had an election that was kind of like my victory in New Hampshire – nobody saw it coming.” Okay, so she probably doesn’t have a career in stand-up, but her presence was warm and affable. Certainly nothing resembling the cold-hearted, she-demon persona many of her more unhinged opponents are convinced she possesses.
Not to read too much into any single campaign speech, but in some ways these rallies do reflect the type of president a candidate would be. Or at least they demonstrate the tactics the candidate would use to implement his or her agenda upon taking office. Clinton’s boasted experience and penchant for nuance would likely lead her to be intimately involved in policy, and it’s certainly easy to imagine a President Hillary Clinton making the talk show rounds to defend the finer details of her administration’s agenda. A President Obama, on the other hand, would likely start by working up public opinion – not merely to get them on board with his policies, but to build a popular mandate for his White Hous programs. There’s an argument, I think, to be made for each approach to governance, and I’m not here to make endorsements. Despite all their flaws, we in the Democratic Party have two strong contenders vying for the nomination. Though winning the White House is never an easy task, come this summer we will have a primary-tested candidate. No matter who that candidate is, it’s clear the Republicans will need to be ready for a good fight. After all, we certainly will be.