Page: Finally, Clinton is ‘likeable enough’
Election campaigns are a series of moments, won or lost by individual candidates. Which brings us to the question, what was your favorite moment in the Democrats’ first presidential debate of 2015?
Some folks say it was the moment Vermont’s self-described “democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders gave front-runner Hillary Clinton a gift by saying he had heard more than enough about her “damn emails.”
The audience roared its agreement. We don’t often see a candidate let an opponent’s scandal like the investigations into Clinton’s private email server go to waste. But Sanders probably won more new friends by defending Clinton than he would have by piling on with what has been a mostly Republican crusade.
But there were other big moments. Who could forget former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s awkwardly calling himself a “block of granite” on the issues, even as he looked and sounded more like a smiling bowl of mush?
And there was the odd gleam in former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb’s eyes as the decorated combat veteran reminisced about the time he killed a man who had wounded him in Vietnam. Ah, memories.
But the most memorable moment in my view may well have come after a commercial break, when former Secretary of State Clinton returned from the bathroom to join her all-male line-up of rivals who were waiting onstage.
“Secretary Clinton,” said a relieved CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, “welcome back.”
“Well, thank you,” she replied, casting a smile to the audience. “You know, it does take me a little longer. That’s all I can say.”
The audience exploded in laughter and they were laughing with her, not at her. With exquisite comic timing, she called attention to what made her most obviously different from her fellow Democratic candidates without being sanctimonious about it.
That’s important for Clinton, who ever since her first presidential run has had to push back the tag of not being “likeable” enough.
Remember how it oddly worked to her advantage in 2008? During a debate days before the New Hampshire primary, then-Sen. Barack Obama muttered, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary,” in a dismissive way that some women compared to bad memories of their first husbands.
Is the obsession with “likeability” a form of sexism? I won’t try to deny it, just as I won’t deny that Obama as an African-American needs to avoid appearing too angry more than his white counterparts might.
But, fair or not, the worst thing that a candidate can do with such negative perceptions is to feed them. In her potty-break moment, Clinton sounded funny, spontaneous and, most important, human instead of the robo-candidate she too often displays when she isn’t hiding out from reporters’ questions.
But Clinton also should be cautious about over-confidence. If she wins the nomination and faces the Republican nominee, the love fest will be over.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.