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The Uniter vs The Divider

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Message Steve Denning

A funny thing happened on the way to Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton’s supporters started becoming genuinely enthusiastic.

For the first time, Hillary began to generate real enthusiasm in her supporters. In earlier campaign events, it was sometimes hard to tell whether her audience was awake or asleep.

The change in response is partly due to emulating Obama ("Yes we will!"). But more important, Hillary, for really the first time in her campaign, is starting to tell the story of her own roots. Her grandfather lived in Pennsylvania and started working in a lace mill. Her father grew up there too and played football for Penn State. Despite a fortune of over $100 million, she has improbably morphed into a “home-town working class gal”. (What was she thinking in those earlier speeches?)

She is also using questions more effectively to encourage the audience to imagine a different set of future stories.

That said, Hillary has also been generating some of this newfound enthusiasm by attacking her opponent in various ways, some ethical and others less so. She is presenting herself as a fighter against an evil world. This gambit of presenting "us versus them" can be effective in building up morale with supporters, but it has significant risks for a political candidate.

Her negatives, already perilously high, are now soaring even higher.

The interpretation that she is joining with Republicans to destroy Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 so as to pave the way for her 2012 run will hardly endear her to the Democratic party.

And to solve the problems she is proposing to solve, it is not obvious that the public wants a long series of political fights. This was a tack that was explored both by Al Gore in 2000 and by John Edwards in 2008, without success. Does anyone really want a new era of endless political bickering?

Even if Hillary were to get nominated, and then elected, the history of her health care initiative in 1993 is warning as to the likely prospects of this "fighting" approach actually succeeding. As the New Yorker explained of this 1993 initiative:

“Clinton and the task force’s staff coördinator, Ira Magaziner, assembled five hundred members for the group, then decided to organize them—if that’s the right word—into thirty-four committees. Not surprisingly, work quickly fell behind schedule. The committees were required to meet under near-military conditions of secrecy: members were forbidden to photocopy documents under discussion or even bring pens and pencils to some sessions. Their meetings were closed to the press and, indeed, to all outsiders, an arrangement that was soon challenged—successfully—in court.

“Clinton’s biggest blunder was to offend the very legislators whose support she needed most. At a retreat for Democratic senators in the spring of 1993, Clinton was asked whether it was realistic to pursue such an ambitious health-care program, given her husband’s many other legislative initiatives. She responded that the Administration was prepared to ‘demonize’ those who opposed the task force’s recommendations.

“’That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton,’ Senator Bill Bradley, of New Jersey, told Bernstein. “You don’t tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them. It was obviously so basic to who she is. The arrogance. The assumption that people with questions are enemies. The disdain. The hypocrisy.”  

At the same time, Obama himself has obviously lost ground on a variety of issues -- Rev Wright, "bitter:", "clinging", "elitest", "flag pins”, Rezko and Ayres. Some of these are ridiculous issues, but they have taken their toll with an electorate that is unremarkable for its subtlety and a main stream media increasingly now a freak show.

To some extent, Obama has been distracted away from his original message of being a "uniter", in contrast to Hillary's emerging role as a "divider".

Take guns for instance, and Obama's defense of his earlier "clinging" remarks, saying that "I have always been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment." This is a plodding legalistic defense of his dismissive remarks of gun owners. His heart obviously isn't in it. He's not celebrating the diversity of the country and suggesting that the people who love guns and those who want gun control are all part of the fabulous tapestry of America and must learn to live together, in this one wonderful country, if we are to solve our common problems, and so on, in the way that he spoke at the National Democratic Convention in 2004, in Iowa in 2008, and so on.

If Obama is to recover his footing, both for the nomination and for the general election, he needs to remember that his entire appeal is as a uniter. He must learn to tell the stories of the entire country, including those of gun owners and small town America.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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