Mark Penn interpreted that his polling suggested that Hillary should avoid the soft stuff and stay on issues. And Hillary thought she knew all she needed to come up with the stories in her life that she told on her stump speeches. They were both wrong.
Minutes before the Philly debate, I had a chance to chat with Hillary's communication director, Howard Wolfson.
I asked him whether Hillary had ever identified a list of stories, from her life, to use on the campaign trail.
In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, we learn that one reason Hillary held off on getting personal, and letting out her softer side was that Mark Penn had repeatedly argued against Hillary manifesting her soft side;
"Before her January 2007 debut as a candidate, the senator's team wrangled over how to portray her. Ms. Solis Doyle, communications director Howard Wolfson, media strategist Mandy Grunwald, policy chief Neera Tanden and senior strategist Harold Ickes wanted to promote her as a candidate of change -- the first woman president -- her Washington years notwithstanding. They also wanted to counter the candidate's high negative ratings among the general population by revealing the witty, engaging woman they knew.
Mr. Penn, by contrast, believed that voters would need to perceive Sen. Clinton as tough and seasoned enough to be the first female commander in chief. Emphasizing her gender too much, he argued, would undercut that. He also said Sen. Clinton would look weak if she apologized for her 2002 war vote, though it was especially unpopular in Iowa.When one insider pleaded during meetings in 2007 to humanize the candidate, witnesses say Mr. Penn responded: "Being human is overrated." His polls, he said, showed "soft stuff" -- talking about Sen. Clinton's mother, for example -- had no effect. Her early attacks on Sen. Obama, on the other hand, had moved numbers in her favor. "People don't care if you have a beer with the guys after work, or whether you're warm and fuzzy about your mother," Mr. Penn argued -- they care about issues like health care."
There were a number of very specific moments, in the debates, where, rather than acting tough, or spouting numbers or showing off knowledge on an issue Hillary would have been far more effective telling a personal life story as an example of an issue.
Yes, Hillary talked about her parents and grandparents. Yes she talked about individuals who were victims of policies she wanted to change. Those stories are not the same. They don't reach people's hearts the same.
At one point, in the February 21st debate, Hillary was asked, "Describe the moment in your life when you were tested the most." Hillary's handlers were so happy with her response that Terry McAuliffe sent out an email to her mailing list, saying,
There was a remarkable moment in tonight's debate that we had to share with you. Watch it here:
Pass it on."
Now, I coach candidates on how to give stump speeches-- how to weave the issues they are focusing upon with the stories in their lives. And the fact that the Clinton Campaign uses this response shows just how badly her advisors have failed in understanding what wins elections.
The question was perfect, a gift for a well prepared candidate. But Hillary didn't answer it. She ignored it clearly not having a clue that this was her shot at proving herself, at SHOWING her experience. Instead, she tried to TELL who she is. She told a story that demonstrated who she is and what she thought. The question gave her an opportunity to really showcase her experience, to SHOW her inner strength, her character under fire.
Frankly, it's not a question you just dredge up an answer to. You have to have thought it through, honed and fined tuned your understanding of the actual challenging experience-- how you were tested, the dynamics, the pressure put upon you, and then, how you stood up to and overcame those challenges.
Any candidate I'd have coached would have have been ready and eager to answer that question head on. An honest, truthful, head-on answer to that question could have been the home run that Hillary was looking for. Instead, she went for the walk, lecturing about her values rather than showing and illustrating them via a story-- a real story which showed her facing a real challenge, actually being tested.
I've written about this in at least two previous articles:
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