Hillary's 'Choice': 'Let's Get Real'


NEW YORK, NY--Call me crazy, but something tells me Hillary Clinton wanted the press to pay attention to her speech this morning. Acknowledging that hacks like me refuse waste their precious time on minor matters, she made sure to label the thing a "major address"on her daily schedule. Major address? said editors everywhere. We must cover it! Then she sent out excerpts of yesterday's remarks in Youngstown, Ohio--remarks, her press shop wrote, that would "preview [the] major address." Nothing like a sneak peek of a sneak peek of a major address to whet our appetites.  Finally, Clinton decided to deliver the speech at New York's Hunter College--a mere taxi ride away from the mainstream media's world headquarters in midtown Manhattan. Apparently the Newsweek building was booked.

Seeing as the Upper East Side is more accessible than El Paso, Stumper attended. Was it worth the one mile trek across Central Park? Yes and no. The Clinton camp clearly sees today's "major address" as the start of its March 4 messaging campaign--and plans, based on what the candidate said on stage, to focus obsessively on "the choice" between Hillary and Barack Obama. The question is whether those contrasts will catch on and convince Democrats to choose Clinton in time to save her fading bid.

Content-wise, there's no reason to think they will--mainly because they already heaven't. Flanked by New York pols and the usual multicultural cast of smiling supporters, Clinton recycled a series of applause lines that anyone following the campaign has heard dozens of times before. Her charge that Obama "favors" "speeches" over "solutions" and "words" over "work"? Alliterative, sure, but at least as old as New Hampshire. The line about being "ready on day one"? Been around for more than a year. And it's not like her attacks on Obama's health-care plan and present votes are news. Viewed up close--with your nose an inch from the canvas--it's hard to see why "the choice" Clinton is outlining today is any different than it was yesterday, when the voters of Wisconsin chose Obama by 17 percent. Or, for that matter, ten days ago--at the start of the Illinois senator's 10-0 streak. And you know what they say about not learning from history.

But I have to wonder whether today's major address was more about packaging than content--and, if so, whether the new packaging will make Clinton's product more palatable to consumers. First of all, it'd be a mistake to think the candidate was speaking mainly to reporters this morning, despite her eagerness to lure us into the room. She was using us to get to the voters--especially the voters in Texas and Ohio who haven't been paying a lot of attention. The message was simple: This is it, she said. This is your choice. Gone were the resume recitations and laundry lists of proposals that have anchored her stump speech for months--in effect, the case for Hillary. Instead, it was all "me vs. him." Every graf opened with a line like "there is a choice" or "this is the choice we face" or "the contrast couldn't be more stark" or "there are real differences." And in the end, Clinton tied it together with her clearest catchphrase to date. "Let's get real," she said. "This campaign is not about a campaign. It is not about a personality... Others might be joining a movement. Well I‘m joining you on the night shift and the day shift. And I’m asking you to join me to shift America into high gear again."

Let's get real. Not the most inspiring message, exactly--in fact, it's the polar opposite of "the audacity of hope." But Clinton's desperate desire is that the people she's counting on to keep her alive on March 4--Latinos, older women and blue-collar Dems--will view every contrast (words vs. work, experience vs. newness) through that prism, and decide, in the end, that they can't afford to choose "hope" over "reality."

It'll be interesting to see whether the press (and, subsequently, the voters) treat Clinton's "major" new message as a flurry of small, familiar brush strokes or a broader, more convincing picture. The latter may be Clinton's last best chance for a comeback. Obama's narrative has always been more seductive, and in the past two weeks significant swaths of the Democratic electorate have been seduced. Now Clinton has two weeks left to counter with a compelling narrative of her own. Call it "The Choice" instead of "the choices." If her story sticks, she may be able to keep this morning's promise: "This campaign goes on." If not, it's hard to see how she goes on much longer.