As the 2008 race for the White House heats up, so does the discussion of any number of candidates’ chances to actually make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One potential candidate in particular has received an inordinate amount of coverage in the media recently: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). In fact, one could argue that a lot of people on the left, right, and in the media are nearly obsessed with the idea of Hillary running in 2008.
But for all this talk about her positions, vulnerability and electability, I think there is one aspect of Hillary’s candidacy that is being completely ignored by her campaign, her supporters, detractors and the reporters covering her. What, exactly, is Hillary’s narrative? What is the story she plans to tell that answers why we should choose her to be president?
For a candidate seeking the highest elected office in America, the political narrative is a key element to victory. A narrative should answer the most fundamental question about a candidate: “Why do you want to be president?”
A political narrative is the story that a candidate crafts that doesn’t just tell us where the candidate has been; it lets us know where they’re going and where we’re going if we choose them to lead us. A narrative is what makes a candidate more than just a series of calculated policy positions; it’s what ties together where a candidate comes from with where they want to take us. And every successful narrative in American politics has had one thing in common: the overcoming of challenges and obstacles.
All successful American politicians have crafted narratives that resonate with America. Bill Clinton was the man from Hope. Barack Obama, in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, famously described himself as “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
We all remember that John Kerry went to Vietnam, though his attempt to cast himself as both a war hero and anti-war hero later left him vulnerable to the ruthless Swift Boat attacks.
No one embodies the power of the American narrative more than our current president, George W. Bush. In the passion of the 2004 election, where Bush was cast as the “protector-in-chief” in a post-9/11 world, it was easy to forget that a very different Bush campaigned in 2000. The race against Al Gore found Bush answering questions about his former alcoholism, spotty National Guard service and other aspects of his “irresponsible youth.”
His story, of the prodigal son who repents and finds salvation, ties together two of the most powerful themes of the Christian faith and may, in part, explain his personal appeal to Christian conservatives beyond mere policy agreement. Those who were surprised that reports of Bush’s past misbehavior did not automatically disqualify him in the voters’ minds never understood the power his narrative of redemption carried. In this context, when the story broke in the closing days of the 2000 election that Bush had a previously undisclosed 1976 drunk driving arrest, it merely reinforced his narrative and was not the campaign-ending “October Surprise” that some predicted it might be.
As speculation for the 2008 election heats up, potential candidates are already preparing to introduce themselves to a national stage. Those who are new will have an opportunity to craft their own narrative identity. Others, such as John Kerry, who have been in the public spotlight before, will struggle to redefine and reintroduce themselves to the American voters.
Which brings us back to Sen.Clinton. Perhaps no one confronts a greater obstacle than her dual challenge of being the first woman to be seriously considered for the presidency and carrying the baggage and benefits of the Clinton name. She is so defined in the minds of many Americans that she may not have the opportunity to change their minds. In fact, I’m not sure what narrative she plans to craft, what 10 words will introduce Hillary Clinton and explain why she believes she should be president. As my professor put it once, “I’m not sure what the title of her narrative ‘movie’ will be.” This is not to say that Hillary cannot win, but merely points to an issue often overlooked in stories of her emerging dominance.
As Democrats and Republicans race for the White House, it will be important for them to keep in mind that while money, endorsements and blogs are all important, none of it means anything without a coherent narrative. The key is to construct a resonant story whose ending has yet to be written, because the truly great narratives are the ones that leave you imagining the candidate not as just a governor or senator, but as the president of the United States.
-The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.