"I will fight for you," or, Hillary and Story-TellingComplications Ensue
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Saturday, September 12, 2015

(Trigger warning:  politics! This here is a post about narratives in politics, so feel free to skip it if you came here for game writing or screenwriting.)

There have been an awful lot of articles in the press about how Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. They're making a lot of Hillary's dubious decision to keep her State Department emails on a private server, and her BS explanation that she didn't want to have to carry two devices.

Casting my mind back to the 2008 primary, my memory is that she blew the race in January and February, but by March, she'd found her voice and her message. She'd gone from I Am the Experienced Candidate to I Will Fight For You. She pulled huge crowds in Texas. Sixteen million registered Democrats voted for her. If she'd been that candidate in New Hampshire, with that message, she'd have won the primary, and crushed John McCain.

I doubt that after four years running the State Department, she's a less convincing presidential candidate than she was in 2008.

So where are these articles coming from? The simplest explanation is that journalists love a horse race. You won't get any column inches for writing that yep, the presumptive Democratic nominee is going to win the nomination, or that in a booming economy, she'd probably beat the Republican nominee, who will be a right-wing yahoo or another politically crippled "moderate," unless he is, yikes, Donald Trump.

But, seriously, keeping her emails secret is a pretty weak stick to beat Hillary with. My guess is that most independent voters are going to have trouble understanding what the fuss is about. My guess is that most Democratic voters are going to remember that the right wing has been hating on Hillary since 1992, and accusing her of all sorts of things (she had Vince Foster murdered! Benghazi!), and the attacks are just going to sound hysterical.

Which is kind of a shame, because it was naughty, and her explanation was unbelievable.

But boy, these journalists are repeating each other's talking points a lot. People thought Hillary was being paranoid when she said there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill, until it came out that there was, in fact, a vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill. It's not hard to believe that there is some coordination going on behind the scenes. I don't doubt that Jeb Bush would rather run against Bernie Sanders than Hillary. There are probably a lot of Democratic bigwigs who hate on the Clintons, too, and they'd really rather hand this extremely winnable election to John Kerry (who blew 2004) or Al Gore (who blew 2000) or Crazy Uncle Joe (who has been losing primaries since 1988).

(In the absence of a war, presidential elections are almost always about the fundamentals of the economy. The incumbent party almost always wins them if the economy is good. Unemployment is at 5.1%. The market is at an all-time high. The dollar is strong. The economy is fundamentally good.)

So what is interesting enough about all this to talk about on a blog about stories? My point, as always, is the power of a story. Hillary being a weak candidate is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people start telling the story, maybe she'll become a weak candidate. Certainly she won't have any serious competition until enough people start saying it. You'll notice there are, as yet, no Democratic governors running against her, but maybe one could be lured into the race if she seems crippled.

And now, there are polls to point to that say she's a weak candidate. That's the self-fulfilling part. Of course the polls are down, because there's been nothing but negative news about Hillary. But with the polls down, now you can have more articles about how she's crippled, and that will bring the polls down more...

So, what does Hillary need to do about it? She needs a story. So far, she's been playing defense. She's been issuing silly explanations of the emails thing (she didn't want to carry two devices? c'mon), and recently she apologized. That might make the emails story old news, but she needs to come up with something that is a new story. You can't fight a story by telling people it's a bad story. You counter a story with another story.

But how do you come up with a story? Journalists practically refuse to cover policy as a story, even though kind of the whole point of an election is to allow voters to choose between policies. To get any traction with policy -- to make a story out of it -- you have to say something really outrageously stupid, like "I'm going to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants" or "I think we should seriously consider building a wall along the Canadian border."

Or at least, you have to say something daring. E.g. Hillary says "I'm not only going to embrace and defend Obamacare, I'm going to extend it." "I'm not only going to defend investment in solar power, I'm going to double down. Because, y'know, it's a huge success, and nothing would be better for our national security if the Russians and the Arabs stopped making a ton of money selling oil."

(I'm a big fan of Democrats selling alternative energy as a national security issue, rather than solely as a climate issue. If the world didn't run on oil, Saddam Hussein would have been no more than an irritant, Isis would run out of money, and Russia wouldn't be able to afford to invade Ukraine. People are willing to spend bazillions of dollars to blow up bearded guys with AK-47's, why not spend some money bankrupting the real enemy? "Let's stop putting money in the pockets of people who hate us" is a better story to convince independents and even Republicans with.)

But I'm not sure it's even important what the policy thing is, so long as you can turn the story into "Hillary has a bold proposal." The message should be "I have opinions, I have guts, I have new ideas." Americans always want to hear that the candidate has guts and new ideas. Guts and new ideas are practically the American religion. That's why so many people dig Donald Trump. He's an irresponsible blowhard, and he really wants to stand on a balcony in front of a crowd, but at least he's saying what he really thinks, and he's not toeing the party line.

Change the story, save the world.

Politics is story-telling.


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