Hillary Clinton can’t help herself. Handed a news cycle victory on a silver platter by vulgar and mean-spirited remarks by Donald Trump, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee flopped again. The problem this time was her attempt to exploit the announcement that daughter Chelsea is expecting the former First Family’s second grandchild. As I wrote earlier today, I think we’d all be better off if everyone, including the candidates, stopped treating politicians like celebrities. But the slip-up here wasn’t just the transparent effort to capitalize on a happy event in her personal life. Seeking to maximize the Democrats’ obvious advantage with Hispanic voters in an election cycle in which most Republicans have taken an anti-immigrant stand, Clinton began to promote herself to that community as everyone’s “abuela.” The response, even from Hispanic Democrats, wasn’t very positive.
The “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela” campaign probably sounded like a good idea when the Clinton war room in Brooklyn cooked it up. That’s especially true since three of the items on the list seemed aimed at Donald Trump and his non-stop insults aimed at her including some particularly vulgar ones this week.
But pandering to voters is not as easy as it looks. It can work if the objects of a politician’s attempt at seduction believe in the sincerity of the person trying to win them over. Such seductions can be as obvious as they are cynical, but the person playing that game must have the knack of seeming to feel everyone’s pain or be extremely likable (see Clinton, Bill). They never work when pandering is done in a manner that is so blatantly obvious and utterly insincere. And that is Hillary’s problem. She’s no more or less dishonest than her infinitely more talented husband. Bill could make anyone believe him. But Hillary lacks the ability to appear authentic, let alone demonstrate authenticity.
That’s why the Clinton campaign is floundering today as the #notmyabuela hashtag sweeps the Internet. Hillary has some strengths, but she is not believable when she says she is just like the average Hispanic grandmother who may have had to deal with poverty, discrimination and violence in her lifetime. Hillary, a woman who grew up in relative privilege, went to elite schools and then spent her adult life as the wife of a powerful politician before starting a career in her own right and becoming fabulously wealthy is not like anyone’s Hispanic grandma.
It may be that more Hispanics are being pushed into the arms of the certain Democratic nominee by Trump’s slurs and antics. But this instance of Hispandering, as her Hispanic critics have termed it, isn’t just an isolated problem for the Clinton campaign. Like the lies about Benghazi, the email scandal and the Clinton Cash allegations, Clinton’s weakness lies not so much in her ideas as in her inability to stick with the truth or to be comfortable in her own skin.
Ironically, Trump provides a good example of how you can say practically anything and still be liked by a lot of people, including some who ought to know better. His lack of a filter is infuriating and leads him to say things no one, let alone a presidential candidate, should say. But he is authentic. Whatever else one can say about him, we know what he really thinks, and he doesn’t pretend to be anything but what he is.
Hillary is the polar opposite of Trump in that respect. She is a woman who speaks in a southern drawl when south of the Mason-Dixon line but sounds like a graduate of Radcliffe and Yale elsewhere. Everything she says and does feels like a pander rather than a genuine expression of belief because none of us are sure what she really thinks or believes. Is she the progressive competing with Bernie Sanders for left wing votes or the reliable pal of Wall Street? Is she a friend of Israel or the woman who smiled and hugged Suha Arafat right after she accused Jews of poisoning Palestinian children? You get the picture, and so do Hispanics that might hold their noses and vote for her but don’t want to be told a bunch of baloney about the candidate being just like their abuelas.
Democrats may dismiss this as just a meaningless kerfuffle, but it points out a potentially fatal weakness in Clinton’s candidacy. In order to be elected president, she has to do more than show up and hope the Republicans nominate Trump. She needs to generate the same enormous turnout from minorities and young voters that President Obama was able to generate. The lack of authenticity or genuine affection on the part of those voters for Hillary is fairly obvious as the #notmyabuela meme indicates. She can hope that Trump or Ted Cruz will turn out Democratic voters for her, and there’s a chance they might. But depending on the GOP to lose the election is not exactly a foolproof way to win it. They might nominate someone else and, though I think it unlikely, either of those candidates might prove more formidable than Democrats think. Either way, it shows how vulnerable an unlikeable candidate with trust issues can be.
Hillary is who she is, and it’s no use waiting for her to change. She and her party have a demographic edge heading into 2016. But more Hispandering or any other activity that only highlights her complete lack of authenticity won’t help her exploit those advantages.