At the core of her strat­egy, Clin­ton is about prag­ma­tism over pas­sion


Dur­ing her failed 2008 White House cam­paign, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton de­rided ri­val Barack Obama’s lofty talk of hope and change as equiv­a­lent to ex­pect­ing “ce­les­tial choirs” to drop from the sky and in­spire peo­ple to do the right thing.

Obama’s op­ti­mism ul­ti­mately trumped Clin­ton’s prag­ma­tism. Now, as she seeks the White House again, Clin­ton has tried to pull a few pages from Obama’s play­book, look­ing to make more per­sonal con­nec­tions with vot­ers and in­fus­ing her cam­paign with re­minders that she could make history as the na­tion’s first fe­male pres­i­dent. Her first TV ads fo­cused on how her mother’s dif­fi­cult up­bring­ing inspired her to en­ter public ser­vice.

Yet a frank ex­change be­tween Clin­ton and black ac­tivists that was made public this week un­der­scores that her core ap­proach to pol­i­tics re­mains un­changed. The for­mer U.S. sen­a­tor and sec­re­tary of state puts prac­ti­cal­ity over pas­sion.

“I don’t be­lieve you change hearts,” Clin­ton told lead­ers from the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. “I be­lieve you change laws, you change al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources, you change the way sys­tems op­er­ate.”

The ex­change also crys­tal­lized a per­sis­tent con­cern that some Clin­ton sup­port­ers have about her can­di­dacy. Her ad­vice to the ac­tivists could be viewed as level-headed and rea­soned, re­flect­ing what sup­port­ers see as a so­lu­tions-ori­ented style that is sorely lack­ing in Washington. But it also high­lighted that em­pa­thy isn’t her first in­stinct and that forg­ing the kind of con­nec­tions with vot­ers that her cam­paign in­sists are im­por­tant re­mains a chal­lenge.

As the ac­tivists prod­ded Clin­ton for a more heart­felt re­sponse, she pushed them for a more co­her­ent plan. Her com­ments were far less bit­ing than when she tan­gled with Obama in 2008, but her mes­sage was es­sen­tially the same: Change comes from ac­tion, not rhetoric.

“She’s ter­rif­i­cally smart,” said Stan­ley Ren­shon, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the City Univer­sity of New York who has writ­ten about the Clin­tons. “But she op­er­ates al­ways at the cog­ni­tive level. It’s al­ways about fig­ur­ing things out strate­gi­cally. She’s emo­tion­ally tone deaf.”

Clin­ton met pri­vately last week with the ac­tivists, who are lead­ers in an ef­fort spurred by re­cent high­pro­file po­lice shoot­ings of black men. A video of the ex­change was made public sev­eral days later, giv­ing vot­ers a rare glimpse of the hy­per-cau­tious Clin­ton in an un­scripted mo­ment.

“You can keep the move­ment go­ing, which you have started, and through it you may ac­tu­ally change some hearts,” Clin­ton told the ac­tivists. “But if that’s all that hap­pens, we’ll be back here in 10 years hav­ing the same con­ver­sa­tion.”

The air­ing of Clin­ton’s com­ments comes dur­ing a vex­ing sum­mer for her cam­paign. She re­mains the clear front- run­ner for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, with more money, en­dorse­ments and sup­port in public polls than her ri­vals. But polls also show that she faces ques­tions about her trust­wor­thi­ness and con­tin­ues to be dogged by her use of per­sonal email and a pri­vate server while at the U.S. State Depart­ment.

Clin­ton also faces a surge of en­thu­si­asm for Ver­mont U. S. Sen­a­tor Bernie San­ders, the self­pro­claimed Demo­cratic so­cial­ist who is draw­ing crowds around the coun­try while ap­peal­ing to Amer­i­cans’ con­cerns about in­come in­equal­ity. San­ders also has been a tar­get of Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivists, who have in­ter­rupted some of his ral­lies to de­mand he pri­or­i­tize poli­cies to ad­dress racism.

Clin­ton’s cam­paign has also had to com­pete for at­ten­tion with the sur­prise sum­mer surge of Don­ald Trump, whose bid for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion has up­ended the Repub­li­can race.

As Clin­ton knows first­hand, an emo­tional con­nec­tion with vot­ers is an in­tan­gi­ble that can help pro­pel even the un­like­li­est of can­di­dates into the White House. Obama broke through with soar­ing speeches that blended as­pi­ra­tions for unit­ing the coun­try with his own unique per­sonal story. Clin­ton’s hus­band, for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, oozed em­pa­thy with vot­ers in set­tings both large and small.

Clin­ton has shown her own flashes of em­pa­thy and emo­tion, most no­tably when she teared up in New Hamp­shire days be­fore the state’s 2008 Demo­cratic pri­mary, a con­test she went on to win. She rel­ishes talk­ing about her young grand­daugh­ter.

Still, Clin­ton prefers build­ing a rap­port with vot­ers over their shared views on the econ­omy and other pol­icy is­sues. She’s spent the early months of her 2016 cam­paign hold­ing small group dis­cus­sions on small busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion pro­pos­als, and re­cently held an event fo­cused on a grow­ing drug epi­demic.

“She’s a very prag­matic per­son,” said Bruce Buchanan, a pres­i­den­tial scholar at the Univer­sity of Texas. “She’s not Bill, she’s Hil­lary.”

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