Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee for President.
However with the Democratic Party unifying as Bernie Sanders winds down his campaign, it would be wrong to forget the struggles Hillary has faced throughout a protracted set of contests with Sanders.
Clinton faces a number of challenges, both from her own history and character, and also due to external factors. They have nagged at her throughout the Democratic primaries and caucuses, but there is a more fundamental issue Hillary must address: her message.
Political commentators often refer to presidential elections as job interviews, where the candidate is effectively scrutinised by their potential employers – the public – for the position of President. Theoretically voters review a candidates full range of promises and analyse their experience, balancing their views on what the country needs with the specific talent and background of a candidate.
It is true, some voters may choose their candidates this way, and for these individuals Hillary Clinton is a compelling choice: a detailed menu of policy proposals crammed into her website, outlining what she pledges to try and accomplish in the Oval Office, and experience with a wide range of public affairs positions.
However, for far more of the public, they will not take the time to read lengthy policy positions or investigate a candidate’s job experience. They listen to ‘the message’: something that can usually be boiled down to three or four sentences that are powerful and stick in the mind.
Bernie Sanders has a clear message: make those fat cats on Wall Street pay, get the money out of politics, move towards the social democrat-esque systems of Canada and northern Europe.
Donald Trump also has a clear message, at least to his supporters: make America great again, reclaim our country, win again, build a wall etc.
Try to sketch out what Hillary’s message might be so far:
Continue the economic recovery started under Obama, continue a cautious but firm international policy, advocate for certain domestic progressive causes?
Carve out a position as a centrist, practical President, attempting to unify two wildly divergent political parties?
Keep a steady ship at home, implementing realistic and responsible controls on the financial sector, on which the American economy is reliant?
None of it is particularly rousing stuff.
Candidates benefit from proposing a message that energises and excites the public: people want to feel like they are part of a broader solution to problems. Both Sanders and Trump have identified ‘the problem’ as the status quo, in different versions, which makes Hillary Clinton’s status quo-yness a little difficult to market to the disillusioned sections of the American public.
The most frustrating thing about Hillary’s message, however, is that within the bounds of her political views she certainly could champion a more uplifting message.
She could rail against the injustice of young African Americans going to jail for minor drug offences while Wall Street crooks walk free, and then point to her detailed platform for bringing big banks under control when accused of hypocrisy.
She could celebrate and urge on American entrepreneurship and free enterprise, warning against the chaotic uncertainty a Trump presidency would bring to the American economy, threatening the savings and jobs of Americans through poorly thought out tax plans.
She could champion legal, effective immigration laws, invoking the American dream and founding principles of the United States to combat the nativist demagoguery of Donald Trump, and call on Americans to secure a free, lawful nation that lives up to its name.
She could invite all Americans to work with her to destroy the last remnants of gender inequality. She has positive, clear steps she wants to take on this and other social issues, and could argue that the rate of progress has been far slower than is befitting a nation like America.
All of these messages would have blowback, but they would give the Clinton campaign an energy that’s too often been lacking over the past year. Whatever strategy her team rolls out to defeat Trump later this year, given the tone of political debate this year it seems clear that Clinton needs to also demonstrate the positive results that a vote for her means, not just lay out the negatives of a vote for Trump. Part of this means that she may need to temper her tendency to revert to dry policy discussion during debates or interviews, and refocus her attention on the message, and not the content of her answers.
In her speech following her victories in New Jersey and California she spoke of “building bridges, not walls.” She must develop this type of message, both pointedly attacking Trump whilst proposing optimism through her vision for America.