The High Cost of a Bad Reputation
Life lessons that Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz should have learned decades ago.
This isn’t what the column’s about, but should be said: It was strange Tuesday night to see the Republican chosen to give the State of the Union response go after the front-runner in her party’s presidential primary. But then this is a strange year. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said that during “anxious times,” the party should not follow “the angriest voices.” She didn’t name Donald Trump but later said her remark was “partially” aimed at him.
It was equally strange to see Ms. Haley so bitterly criticized afterward by Trump’s supporters. Ann Coulter tweeted: “Trump should deport Nikki Haley.” (The governor is the U.S.-born daughter of immigrants from India.) Some oafish congressman said Ms. Haley is insufficiently conservative but at least “beautiful.”
Here’s why the criticisms are strange. Ms. Haley has every right to her reasonable and mildly stated views. Mr. Trump is no victim — he dishes it out, he can take it. And Ms. Haley is a popular, moderate-conservative woman who is a successful two-term governor. Do Republicans not realize they need more such women, who put up with a great deal and deserve respect, and that for years as a party they’ve had a woman problem? More immediately, do they not realize it is good to have a sunny, well-balanced woman as the momentary face of their party? The other faces, the presidential contenders, are running around like rabid squirrels throwing nuts at each other in the dark. It’s not a good look. In appearing to be and acting like a normal human being, Ms. Haley did more for the party in 20 minutes than they have in two months. So go Nikki!
With one caveat. She later revealed that, like an obedient person not quite in tune with the spirit of the times, she had cleared her remarks with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Ugh. Never clear your work with the guys in Washington, and if they tell you that’s the price of making the speech, don’t make it — and tell people why. Clear your thoughts with no one, like a classy independent woman.
What this column is about starts with how Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz have both recently learned the same two lessons. The first is that it is not at all pleasant to face a competitor who’s as tough and mean as you are. In each case that competitor is Donald Trump.
For Mr. Cruz the lesson hit home with the damage, however small or significant, caused by Mr. Trump’s putting forward the issue of Mr. Cruz’s constitutional eligibility, due to birth in Canada, for the presidency. Mr. Trump was particularly devilish: He didn’t insist Mr. Cruz was ineligible but simply said, with an air of mock concern, that a President Cruz could bog the country down in years of court challenges. This was primo Doubt-Casting, aimed at giving potential Cruz supporters reservations.
As for Mrs. Clinton, she has clearly been rattled by Mr. Trump’s merciless resurrection of her alleged complicity in the sometimes brutal handling of women involved in her husband’s dramas. This reminds everyone of — and introduces young voters, who were children during the Gennifer Flowers through Monica Lewinsky stories to — the whole sordid underside of Clintonism. Mrs. Clinton clearly wasn’t expecting it, and she bobbled. She has never gone up against a competitor like Mr. Trump.
The second thing she and Mr. Cruz are both learning, I suspect, is something most people learn by their 20s: It matters what people think of you. It’s important that people have a high opinion of your essential integrity, trustworthiness and good faith. It matters that they like you. Mr. Cruz, when challenged by Mr. Trump, could have used some backup from prominent Republicans, but they didn’t throw him a lifeline. John McCain: “I am not a constitutional scholar on that, but I think it’s worth looking into.” You know why Mr. Cruz had no backup? Because almost no one who works with him likes him. They haven’t experienced him as a trustworthy person of good faith. They waited, as people do, for a chance to hurt him, and when they got it they did.
Mrs. Clinton’s reputational problems are evident in this week’s polls. On Tuesday, Monmouth University had her trailing Bernie Sanders by 14 points in New Hampshire. Quinnipiac had her down by five in Iowa. The Des Moines Register poll has her ahead there, but by only two points. The caucus is still two weeks away, but if Mrs. Clinton’s campaign isn’t sinking, it’s obviously struggling.
Democrats who like her all say the same thing: She’s having trouble because she’s not really good at campaigning. That’s true as far as it goes. She is especially poor at the podium, where, when she wants to emphasize an applause line, her voice becomes loud, flat and harassing to the ear. She lately reminds me of the landlady yelling up the stairs that your kids left their bikes in the hall again. Literally that’s how it sounds: “And we won’t let them roll back the progress we’ve made. Your kids left their bikes in the hall.”
But a lack of talent isn’t all of it. Bernie Sanders isn’t all of it either. His appeal has three parts. The first is ideology. Barack Obama’s party has become a more leftist one, and Mr. Sanders’s leftism is sincere, long-standing, and has a kind of clarity to it, a lucid crudeness. He’ll break up the banks and make Wall Street bleed. The second is antipathy to Mrs. Clinton, even a lack of the old affection. I’m not seeing the fervor for her one saw in 2008. Where is the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit? The third appears to be affection for Bernie — the underdog, the guy who doesn’t have a machine, who genuinely seems to hold the views he claims to hold. Even I like him. He’s like some old guy in Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!”: “I’ve got the answer, it’s in this book by Karl Marx!”
The real problem for Mrs. Clinton is that so many people do not find her to be a person of reliable integrity. It’s not more complicated than that, really — her character is not admired. It’s all in the polls. In August, a Quinnipiac poll had 61% of respondents saying they do not consider her honest and trustworthy. In October they reported that in the swing states they regarded her as the least trustworthy of all the candidates, both parties.
After 23 years at the highest levels of public life, Mrs. Clinton has become encrusted by scandal, from her part in her husband’s dramas straight through to Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation and the emails, in connection with which she may be indicted. She brings scandal with her, always has. I would be surprised if many people were not thinking: “Do we really want to go back to all that again, knowing it never ends, knowing there will be another scandal, that all we have to do is wait?”
Maybe she’ll gut it out. But maybe it’s like 2008 again, a reverse Sally Field: They don’t like me, they really don’t like me.