FDR had his fireside chats. Richard Nixon held conversational exchanges with small groups in his 1968 campaign. Now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is telling Americans, “let’s chat” — just you, me and an intimate group of 300 million or so Americans.
Clinton’s effort to launch her campaign as a “conversation” has a political pedigree that extends well beyond the “listening tour” from her 2000 Senate campaign or the “conversations on health care” that she held during her unsuccessful health care reform effort of 1993.
Her husband, Bill Clinton, held his own listening tour in Arkansas before deciding to run for president in 1992.
The campaign-as-conversation is a gimmick, say some political consultants, but not necessarily a bad one.
“They’ve got to soften Hillary and this is a way to do it,” said Dane Strother, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications expert who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that for Clinton, it’s a good way for her to meet the challenge of appearing both competent and caring that voters seem to demand of female candidates.
And so Clinton planted herself on a couch for three nights this week for upbeat “Webchats” from “Hillary TV,” as her Web site styles it. Her first campaign trip to Iowa on Saturday was billed as a “conversation with Iowans.”
“We’ve got a lot to talk about tonight,” the New York senator told viewers in her first Webchat. “It’s amazing how new technology can bring so many of us together.”
The Webchat format, also tried by Democratic candidate John Edwards this week, offers Clinton in an easy, nonconfrontational setting. A campaign aide reads her a mix of friendly questions selected from thousands submitted to the Web site, ranging from substantive topics such as Iraq and energy policy to softballs about things like her favorite movies and her exercise regimen.
(She loves to be take walks and swim, but runs “like a tortoise,” Clinton confesses.)
There’s no risk of hostile questioning here:
— Erin, a self-described “20-something blogger” from San Diego, writes to her: “I am so thrilled to see that you will be publishing your own campaign blog on hillaryclinton.com. Can you tell us how you plan to further your conversation with the American people through the blog?”
— Timothy, from Honolulu, writes: “We’ve always admired the great job Bill and you did in shielding Chelsea from life in the fish bowl and in the process managing to raise her to be such a well-adjusted, intelligent and poised young lady. We were wondering, now that she’s an adult who is accomplished in her own right, do you expect that she will be taking a more visible and active role in your upcoming campaign?”
— Broad questions like “Where do you stand on the Iraq war?” give her a chance to expound unchallenged.
Her campaign said the chats attracted 25,000 questions over the three nights and nearly 150,000 people used her Web site to sign up as supporters this week.
The Republican National Committee’s opinion on what it calls “Hillary’s screenplay” was that the “promised ‘conversations’ turn into short, screened, and seemingly scripted productions.”
Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant, said it’s part of the legacy of Howard Dean’s Internet-driven 2004 presidential campaign that candidates need to engage and empower Democratic activists more directly.
“If you’re not talking to activists and engaging in what looks like a two-way dialogue, then you’re going to be in trouble inside the Democratic primary,” Backus said. Furthermore, because Clinton’s every move on the campaign trail is likely to attract a media circus, the Web gives her the opportunity to project “that moment of intimacy via modern technology.”
Backus cautions, however, that the “coin of the realm this election cycle is genuiness and authenticity,” and Clinton has to guard against looking “gimmicky.”
Strother said Clinton’s strategy is part of a broader effort by all the candidates “to prove to the populace at large, ‘Look, I’m new, I’m hip, I’m tomorrow.'”
But Republican consultant Rich Galen said it’s silly to think that Clinton is running a cutting-edge campaign. Her strategy, he says, has been “as conventional as you can possibly be” — raising lots of money, using her Senate term to set up a presidential run, demonstrating her vote-getting power in a re-election romp, and taking carefully culled questions.
“It’s only new in that you can see it on your desktop, and can watch it anytime you want,” he said. “Tinkering around the edges with this stuff is not the same as having a transformational campaign.”
Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said the conversational format offers a chance to see Clinton “at her best.” There will be plenty of old-fashioned, face-to-face appearances, too, he said.