Politics

Hillary Clinton's Challenge: Winning the Battle of False Equivalence

Convention an opportunity to win over independents and Republicans appalled by Trump

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the CNN Democratic Town Hall event at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in January. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

PHILADELPHIA — With his white-knuckle approach to speechwriting — making changes in the text until the final millisecond — Bill Clinton as president always courted disaster. And then transcended it.  

He ad-libbed the first seven minutes of a 1993 speech to Congress on health care because the wrong speech had been inserted into the teleprompter. His 1997 State of the Union address somehow went into the teleprompter as a James Joycean single paragraph because Clinton had been tweaking the speech in the limousine on his way to the Capitol.  

That is not — to put it mildly — Hillary Clinton's style. She is more likely to give her Thursday night acceptance speech while juggling bowling pins than she is to emulate the high-wire rhetorical acts of her husband.  

But Hillary's orderly, unflappable approach brings with it a different kind of risk. She often gives the impression that her approach to campaigning is to check off boxes.  

Remind the world that she's a grandmother for likability, check. Arouse women voters with talk of the glass ceiling, check. Reach out to Latinos with a Spanish-speaking running mate, check. Stress her years of advocacy for children's rights to show she has a heart, check.  

It is her take on the New Deal Democratic coalition — run for president by offering a little something for every winnable constituency group. Putting it in baseball terms (and remember Hillary is a Cubs and a Yankee fan), it is creating an offense based entirely on hitting singles.  

Running for president with an incumbent of your own party in the White House can be a daunting challenge. In the shadow of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush admitted his bafflement at "the vision thing. Al Gore in 2000 was the pretzel candidate — tying himself in knots trying to avoid a tarnished Bill Clinton while still claiming credit for the achievements of Clintonism.  

Still, there is an inescapable mushiness to Hillary Clinton's vision. In her Sunday night "60 Minutes" interview along with Tim Kaine, she described her policy agenda in these stirring terms: "I think we can create more economic opportunity. I think we can improve education, make college affordable, deal with the myriad of issues that we confront."  

You can see the bumper-stickers now: "Deal with the Myriad of Issues — Vote Hillary."  

Later in the interview, Scott Pelley gave Clinton another chance to summarize her ambitions as president. But, again, Hillary opted for the warm and very fuzzy: "I care most about getting the economy working for everybody. Not just those at the top. I care deeply about rebuilding the ladders of opportunity that have been battered, and broken, and knocked over — so that people can get an education that'll equip them for the future."  

Make no mistake, this is not Ted Kennedy being unable to articulate a coherent reason why he was running for president in his 1979 interview with Roger Mudd . But this is also not the crisp answer that might be expected from a well-rehearsed woman who will deliver the biggest speech of her many-faceted career Thursday night.  

Even if she were not running against a bilious billionaire and apprentice authoritarian, Hillary Clinton brings obvious strengths to this campaign. Strengths like competence and professionalism.  

The rollout of Tim Kaine as her running mate was a textbook political operation — devoid of leaks or hints of indecisiveness. Watching Clinton and Kaine in Miami Saturday, I thought of the slogan "Better Together," last used to keep Scotland as part of Great Britain.  

The hacking of the internal emails of the Democratic National Committee and their release by Wikileaks was an embarrassment. But the Clinton campaign acted promptly to provide DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with an exit strategy — straight out an open window. And the choice of Donna Brazile as the acting DNC chair was pitch perfect since the CNN commentator is well liked, soothing and experienced.  

This convention is also the last time that Hillary has a chance to win the battle of False Equivalence. Her secrecy mania (the home-brew email servers), her greed (those Goldman-Sachs speeches) and her husband's questionable fund-raising for the Clinton Foundation have produced nods of agreement when Donald Trump mocks her as "Crooked Hillary."  

For all of Hillary's missteps and for all the Clinton family's sense of entitlement, there is no comparison between the former secretary of state and the former reality-show host. Hillary does not threaten America's alliances, advocate war crimes, demean Muslims and Latinos, consort with white supremacists and display a total contempt for the norms of democracy.  

It seems an open-and-shut case — and it is central to Clinton's need to win the votes of independents and Republicans appalled by Donald Trump.  

But asked on "60 Minutes" about her image as someone who is unethical, Hillary quickly retreated to her familiar "vast rightwing conspiracy" tone of martyrdom. As she put it, "I often feel like there's the Hillary standard and then there's the standard for everybody else."  

Yes, Hillary has been the victim of partisan witch-hunts from Whitewater to Benghazi. But she has also played fast and loose from her miraculous commodities trading record in the 1980s to her State Department emails.  

In her battle against the most dangerous presidential candidate of my lifetime, it is vital to eliminate the counter-argument that "Hillary Is Worse." Sadly, though, I see no signs that this talented, dedicated and exasperating almost-nominee can pull it off.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer." Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.