I've seen up close the two Clintons America knows. He's a big smile, hand locked on your arm and lots of charms. "Hey, come down and speak at my library. I'd like to talk some politics with you."
And her? She tends to be, well, hard and brittle. I inherited her West Wing office. Shortly after the 2001 Inauguration, I made a little talk saying I appreciated having the office because it had the only full-length vanity mirror in the West Wing, which gave me a chance to improve my rumpled appearance. The senator from New York confronted me shortly after and pointedly said she hadn't put the mirror there. I hadn't said she did, just that the mirror was there. So a few weeks later, in another talk, I repeated the story about the mirror. And shortly thereafter, the junior senator saw me and, again, without a hint of humor or light in her voice, icily said she'd heard I'd repeated the story of the mirror and she … did … not … put … that mirror in the office.
It is a small but telling story: she is tough, persistent and forgets nothing. Those are some of the reasons she is so formidable as a contender, and why Republicans who think she would be easy to beat are wrong. The Republican presidential nomination is the most fluid and unpredictable contest in decades, but the Democratic nominee is likely to be Hillary. Not without a fight, not without losing early contests (probably Iowa, for starters) and not without bruises and bumps.
And so the question to John McCain from a woman at a town hall in South Carolina last Monday was tasteless, but key: "How do we beat the [rhymes with witch]?" Right now, Republicans are focusing much of their fire on Senator Clinton. Criticizing her unites the party, stirs up the unsettled feelings many swing voters have toward her and allows each candidate to say why he is best able to beat her. For now, that's enough. But when a GOP nominee emerges, he needs to remember no Republican is as well known as Hillary. The Republican has room to grow in the polls as voters get a better sense of who he is and what animates him. Here's what he needs to do.
Plan now to introduce yourself again right after winning the nomination. Don't assume everyone knows you. Many will still not know what you've done in real life. Create a narrative that explains your life and commitments. Every presidential election is about change and the future, not the past. So show them who you are in a way that gives the American people hope, optimism and insight. That's the best antidote to the low approval rates of the Republican president. Those numbers will not help the GOP candidate, just as the even lower approval ratings of the Congress will not help the Democratic standard-bearer.
Say in authentic terms what you believe. The GOP nominee must highlight his core convictions to help people understand who he is and to set up a natural contrast with Clinton, both on style and substance. Don't be afraid to say something controversial. The American people want their president to be authentic. And against a Democrat who calculates almost everything, including her accent and laugh, being seen as someone who says what he believes in a direct way will help.
Tackle issues families care about and Republicans too often shy away from. Jobs, the economy, taxes and spending will be big issues this campaign, but some issues that used to be "go to" ones for Republicans, like crime and welfare, don't have as much salience. Concerns like health care, the cost of college and social mobility will be more important. The Republican nominee needs to be confident in talking about these concerns and credible in laying out how he will address them. Be bold in approach and presentation.
Go after people who aren't traditional Republicans. Aggressively campaign for the votes of America's minorities. Go to their communities, listen and learn, demonstrate your engagement and emphasize how your message can provide hope and access to the American Dream for all. The GOP candidate must ask for the vote in every part of the electorate. He needs to do better among minorities, and be seen as trying.
Be strong on Iraq. Democrats have bet on failure. That's looking to be an increasingly bad wager, given the remarkable progress seen recently in Iraq. If the question is who will get out quicker, the answer is Hillary. The Republican candidate wants to recast the question to: who will lead America to victory in a vital battleground in the War on Terror? There will be contentious fights over funding the troops and over intelligence-gathering right after the parties settle on their candidates. Both battles will help the Republican candidate demonstrate who will be stronger in winning the new struggle of the 21st century.
The conventional wisdom now is that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. In reality, she's eminently beatable. Her contentious history evokes unpleasant memories. She lacks her husband's political gifts and rejects much of the centrism he championed. The health-care fiasco showed her style and ideology. All of which helps explain why, for a front runner in an open race for the presidency, she has the highest negatives in history.
While the prospective Republican nominee is talking about her now, the time will come soon when he must spend more time telling his story. By explaining to voters why he deserves to be our next president, he will also make clear why that job should not go to another person named Clinton.