Changing perceptions of Clinton is campaign’s biggest challenge - The Buffalo News

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Changing perceptions of Clinton is campaign’s biggest challenge

Hillary Clinton has a problem: Too many people don’t trust her.

Her enemies trumpet that point. Her supporters acknowledge it too, though they couch it in softer terms  or, more likely, contextualize it as the result of a Bill-and-Hillary witch hunt that started in the early ’90s.

Whatever the semantics, however it’s justified, the resulting perception is clear: If the truth is fresh, clean water, Hillary Clinton is a like a blob of slick oil.

Clinton and truth. Too many people believe they just don’t mix.

To Republicans, that’s a rallying cry. To Clinton Democrats, it’s an ongoing and nuanced challenge.

“If everybody could meet her in person, she wins almost unanimously,” said New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who’s campaigned for Clinton around the country. “That’s what I’ve thought for a long time.”

Since most voters will never even see Clinton in person, the next best shot at changing that image may come this week. The Democratic National Convention begins Monday in Philadelphia, and will end Thursday evening with Clinton being officially named the party’s nominee.

The biggest challenge of the four-day affair will be positioning Clinton as an energizing and – here’s the key – trustworthy choice for voters.

It’ll be a gargantuan task, even on the left side of the political spectrum, which is loaded with Bernie Sanders supporters who are burnt up over Clinton’s nomination.

The numbers are stark: Nearly 56 percent of voters view Clinton unfavorably, according to an average of 13 major polls tracked by RealClearPolitics.com. That’s startlingly close to her opponent Donald Trump’s unfavorable rating of 59 percent.

Her favorable rating isn’t much better: Clinton’s is 38 percent, only four points higher than Trump’s.

Clinton has Trump-like numbers. But why? She’s not a Trump-like candidate.

Trump is a brash billionaire, a developer-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-presidential frontrunner. He makes broad, sweeping statements about building walls and banning Muslims, and only recently started toning down his rhetoric and clarifying his plans.

Regardless, his approach is unquestionably effective: Trump dominated a field of 17 Republican contenders, which became official when he accepted the party’s nomination last week in Cleveland.

Clinton is decidedly un-Trump-ish. Her words are measured. Her qualifications for the presidency – lawyer, a first lady who was engaged in policy, senator, secretary of state – are almost never questioned.

Even her truth-telling scores are in line with those of President Obama and her rival for the Democratic line, Sanders. According to Politifact’s Truth-o-Meter tracker,  51 percent of Clinton’s public statements since 2007 are true or mostly true. That’s slightly above Obama (48 percent) and just below Sanders (52 percent).

Trump’s truth score is 14 percent.

Clinton’s untruthfulness score, which ranges from statements that are mostly false to – in Politifact terminology – “Pants on Fire” lies, is 27 percent. Obama’s is 26; Sanders is 29.

Trump’s untruthful score? It is 70 percent.

That’s the issue: As much as you can measure truth and presidential qualifications, Clinton is good on paper. Her resume and truthfulness match up with, if not exceed, that of the guy who has the job and the man who challenged her for the nomination.

Except when she talks, too many voters don’t think she’s being straight. Why?

For the first woman to win a major party nomination and have a viable shot at the White House, it’s an issue of politics and branding.

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Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul speaks to Hillary Clinton supporters at a campaign rally at the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo on April 8. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul speaks to Hillary Clinton supporters at a campaign rally at the Pierce Arrow Museum in Buffalo on April 8. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Last week in Cleveland, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke to the New York Republican delegation at breakfast. In a 38-minute speech, he unloaded on Clinton, rolling her then-president’s husband’s sex life and her own more recent email scandal into a blistering, headline-grabbing attack.

“In the last 20 years, the biggest war on women has been conducted by Bill Clinton,” Giuliani said. “Bill Clinton was a predator president.”

Hillary Clinton was part of the “bimbo squad,” Giuliani alleged, that attacked and silenced women who were part of the famously flirtatious president’s circle of interest.

“If Monica Lewinsky hadn’t come up with the dress,” said Giuliani, referring to the former White House intern’s blue Gap dress that contained a Bill Clinton semen stain, “they would have destroyed her.”

Giuliani also took aim at the FBI’s recent recommendation to not charge Clinton for her use of a private email server to handle classified information during her tenure as secretary of state.

“She’s going to be running to prevent getting an orange jumpsuit,” suggesting that if Trump wins the presidency, the case against Clinton could be reopened.

People in the room starting chanting “Lock her up!” The same refrain was heard in the convention itself, and its roots are deeper than the email probe. The Clintons’ history is marked with decades of apparent scandal, dating back to controversies over investments in Arkansas before Bill Clinton’s first term.

In a 2015 interview with CNN, journalist Carl Bernstein – who with Bob Woodward broke the Nixon-Watergate story for the Washington Post – said Clinton has become a “specialist” in making the truth malleable.

“It has to do, I think, with the peculiarity of the Clinton situation,” Bernstein said. “It had partly to do with the history of Bill Clinton and women in which she’s had to defend him. It’s been very difficult to do with the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

During an interview at the GOP convention last week, Ed Cox, the Republican state chair, brought up a New York Times piece from 1996 in which columnist William Safire –a conservative – called the then-first lady a “congenital liar.”

“Clinton is trapped in her record,” said Cox, who is the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon. “It’s not a very good one.”

A YouTube video from earlier this year called “Hillary Clinton lying for 13 minutes straight” went viral. (Heading into the Democratic National Convention, it had 9.4 million views.) PolitiFact fact-checked the video, which includes her talking about core principles, the email scandal, her Wall Street ties, universal health care, her claims that she once landed under sniper fire in Bosnia, and her views on free trade.

Some items were mostly or fully false. (Example: her landing in Bosnia was peaceful). Many, though, were more nuanced, and showed a change in Clinton’s thinking. (Example: Clinton used to be opposed to gay marriage; now she supports it.)

So are those flip-flops authentic, or done for political expediency? Is Clinton trapped in the facts of her record, or the perception of it?

The distinction hardly seems to matter. Clinton has a record – a long and deep one, which gives her opponents and the media plenty to pick apart.

In Giuliani’s words, she is “the quintessential Washington insider.”

And she’s an insider at a time when large swells of voters are embracing outsiders like Trump and Sanders. That’s because those voters, too, consider themselves to be outsiders – people who feel trampled upon or left behind.

Outsiders not only don’t want to vote for insiders; they have a hard time even trusting them. It’s a perception issue, one that Clinton supporters acknowledge she has a hard time overcoming.

“She has been demonized from her time as first lady through the present,” said Subodh Chandra, a civil rights attorney in Cleveland who has been a supporter of the Clintons since the 1992 presidential race. “When she actually governs, people find that she governs incredibly capably and well and in an honest and uncorrupt fashion.”

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Former Senator Hillary Clinton and  former Congressman Tom Reynolds chat in the VIP room at the Buffalo Convention Center before receiving an award from Kaleida Health Care in 2005. (News file photo)

Former Senator Hillary Clinton and former Congressman Tom Reynolds chat in the VIP room at the Buffalo Convention Center before receiving an award from Kaleida Health Care in 2005. (News file photo)

Former Congressman Tom Reynolds didn’t know what to expect when he first met Hillary Clinton in her role as New York’s junior senator, a job she began in 2001 and held until 2009. Clinton was a famous former first lady with a seemingly bright future in the Democratic Party; Reynolds was then a rising Republican the House leadership.

That should make them political foes. Instead, they became what The Buffalo News dubbed “the Odd Couple.”

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Reynolds, who found that despite their differing views on many national issues, he and Clinton had “a chemistry” to work together on local and state needs. Reynolds said Clinton was “a good partner” at what he calls “pothole work” – the often-unglamorous but vital constituent issues.

“We were able to roll up our sleeves and get work done,” said Reynolds, who worked closely with Clinton on a variety of issues and initiatives, including the West Valley Demonstration Project, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and saving the Niagara Falls Air Base from closing. Reynolds, whose district was largely rural, was also impressed with Clinton’s interest in agricultural issues.

Despite their unlikely relationship, the former congressman isn’t voting for Clinton in November; in keeping with his conservative philosophy, he wants right-of-center judges and a Republican majority in the Senate.

Still, he isn’t hesitant to acknowledge his trust in her.

“I trust her on the work I did in Congress with her, because she always gave me a straight answer,” he said. “One thing about working in that world, you can usually figure that out very quick.”

Hochul, now an influential Democrat as state’s lieutenant governor, was a Town of Hamburg councilwoman when she first met Clinton. Like Reynolds, she was impressed at the senator’s hands-on approach to local needs.

One time, Hochul was sitting on a panel with Clinton and handed her a letter. “I need your help with something, Senator,” Hochul said. After a string of accidents on stretch of Route 20 in Hamburg, including one in which three teenagers were killed, Hochul wanted a center turning lane. She asked Clinton to advocate for it. Soon after, Hochul said, Clinton called her from Washington and said, “I will work on this.”

Within days, Hochul said, she received word that the installation of a turning lane would happen.

“She could have been all over the country making a name for herself when she was our senator, especially the early years,” said Hochul, who went on to become Erie County clerk and serve in Congress. But she was out there with our farmers, our small towns, and taking care of infrastructure problems.”

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Congressman Louise Slaughter speaks during a press conference at the Niagara Falls International Airport with former Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005. (News file photo)

Congressman Louise Slaughter speaks during a press conference at the Niagara Falls International Airport with former Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005. (News file photo)

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, has known Clinton for decades, and she can’t believe the difference between the woman she knows and the politician the world sees.

Slaughter sees Clinton not only as a policy wonk without equal, who enjoyed discussing the intricacies of dairy regulations and legislation with upstate farmers when she was senator, but also as a person who is very different than her “bland” persona.

“Her laugh is a big guffaw,” Slaughter said. “She’s a wonderful companion and friend.”

Slaughter told The News that when her husband, Bob, died in 2014, Clinton was one of the first people to call and offer condolences.

“People don’t have any idea of that side of her,” Slaughter said.

Hochul, when stumping for Clinton, has been telling the story of the then-senator meeting with family members of retired Bethlehem Steel workers who were facing the potential loss of benefits. Clinton met with the families in the basement of Hamburg Town Hall and wouldn’t allow any media.

“She wanted people to have their privacy,” Hochul said. “So she listened to their stories. She sat there, holding their hands, looking in their eyes, they’re crying. She’s hugging. It was so deeply personal. And I felt so fortunate to experience that, when I saw that connection she made. When I hear people say anything other than that, I say, ‘You didn’t get a chance to see what I saw.’ ”

Which may be exactly the problem: Many people who’ve worked closely with Clinton – even some of her political opposites, like Reynolds – acknowledge her hard work, intelligence, and ability to get things done.

Those who know her well, like Slaughter and Hochul, talk about her warmth. But for Clinton – unlike, say, her husband – that charisma doesn’t translate through cameras which, Hochul said, “don’t do her justice.”

“I don’t know how you overcome the fact that most of the world gets to know you through a television lens or larger speeches or interviews with reporters,” Hochul said. “I know at the personal level, she’s got the connection.”

The challenge between now and November will be to make that connection with voters – and it’ll be a layered, nuanced task. Voters seem to trust Clinton about as much as they do – or don’t – trust Trump.

In a June poll by CBS News, 62 percent of respondents indicated Clinton is not honest and trustworthy, which nearly matched the number (63 percent) who said the same about Trump. And here’s a bigger problem for Clinton: In that same poll, only one-third of voters said they feel Clinton believes the things she says, whereas more than half (56 percent) said Trump is forthright in his words.

“She can have a tendency to come across as harsh, and I think that’s been to her detriment,” said Karen Leland, author of the recently released book, “The Brand Mapping Strategy.”

Leland has been monitoring the Clinton-Trump race and analyzing it from a branding perspective. Clinton, she believes, has erred in making her gender a central focus.

“When Obama ran, he did not run on ‘I could be the first black president,’ ” Leland said. “It was true, but I don’t think his brand was centered around that. His brand was centered around a much broader, more inclusive message.”

Clinton needs to find that too, Leland said, pointing to the former secretary’s victory speech in June when it became clear that she would win the Democratic nomination. In that speech, Clinton spoke passionately about her late mother, saying, “I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic nominee.”

“She was really letting us (through) a window into her life and her story that makes her who she is,” Leland said. “It was a very human story. It wasn’t a you-should-vote-for-me-because-I’m-a-woman-president story.”

Clinton will get another chance this week. The Democratic National Convention is her party. When she gives her acceptance speech Thursday night, she’ll have the opportunity to shape a narrative that reveals who she is and why she should lead.

The challenge for Clinton will be to tell the story in a way that people actually believe what she’s saying.

Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this story.

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