viernes, 15 de julio de 2016

Has Hillary finally found her voice?

Hillary Clinton works with Dan Schwerin, director of speechwriting, on a few last-minute changes to her speech before declaring victory in the Democratic presidential primary on June 7 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Hillary Clinton works with Dan Schwerin, director of speechwriting, on a few last-minute changes to her speech before declaring victory in the Democratic presidential primary on June 7 in Brooklyn, N.Y. | Photo by Barbara Kinney

When it comes to messaging, Clinton is often her own worst enemy. Democrats are counting on her to get it right in her convention speech.

Hillary Clinton was about to get clobbered in the New Hampshire primary, and her campaign still didn’t have a message explaining why she was the right person for the job.

With a toxic cloud hanging over Clinton’s makeshift campaign office at the Radisson hotel in Manchester, Clinton’s chief speechwriter, Dan Schwerin, and her top policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, decamped for Sullivan’s mother-in-law’s house, in the Seacoast town of New Castle to rethink the entire campaign's approach.

There, huddled together in the February snow, they scrapped her spaghetti-on-the-wall policy approach and came up with a sturdy slogan that aimed to capture the historic nature of her candidacy while making a pitch to African-American and Hispanic voters: “Breaking Down Barriers.”

There was just one problem: Their candidate hated it.

“This is useless,” a frustrated Clinton vented when Schwerin and Sullivan — two of her longest-serving aides — presented the new plan to her that glum Tuesday morning of Feb. 9 in her Manchester hotel suite.

The feeling was mutual. Her staff admired her attention to detail, but knew she was often her own worst enemy. Clinton is known for taking a draft of a speech and changing it some indelible way to make it more literal and less readable. (The joke at her Brooklyn campaign headquarters is that she would take the public safety slogan “If You See Something, Say Something,” and, in her literal-minded way, change it to say, “If You See Something, Alert the Proper Authorities.”)

The entire episode illustrated Clinton’s paradox: On the one hand, she’s a deeply involved candidate who trusts her own instincts. But on the other, she still struggles, after all these years, when it comes to messaging — and remains almost hostile to the idea of a narrative that Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and even Donald Trump seem to craft so naturally.

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Interviews with more than half a dozen Clinton allies inside and outside her campaign reveal a candidate who remains deeply insecure when trying to commit to a message about her campaign, and reluctant to indulge in the rhetorical flourishes that make for the rousing poetry of campaigns.

On that February morning, sitting at the dining room table with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea — as well as top campaign aides including communications director Jennifer Palmieri and campaign manager Robby Mook — Clinton seemed to be reverting to her campaign muscle memory: second-guessing advice from the aides who got her into this ditch, resisting a larger, voter-friendly narrative and deciding to rely on her own judgment to save herself.

But after Schwerin and Sullivan pushed back, telling her they believed “Breaking Down Barriers” was her best chance at turning things around, and Chelsea piped up and took their side, a skeptical Clinton agreed that if Schwerin wrote it up into a speech, she would give it a shot in her concession speech that night.

Today, campaign officials credit that framework with stabilizing the campaign during the darkest days of the primary — and even Clinton eventually agreed to make it her rubric as the primary headed toward the South.

In truth, the concept was fine but not great. “‘Breaking Down Barriers’ didn’t set the country on fire, but it gave us a construct and argument,” said a top Clinton official. “It was a way of focusing ourselves.”

Clinton on the campaign trail often concedes she’s not a natural politician. But what that really means, top aides said, is that she is uncertain when it comes to messaging, and doesn’t connect naturally with any campaign slogans.

“Hillary through the fall had a lot of messages, a lot of important messages, a lot of points to make and contrasts to draw,” a second top Clinton campaign official told POLITICO. “She didn’t fundamentally have an argument about why she was running and why she was the right candidate for the job and why Sen. Sanders was not.”

This is the fundamental tension of being Clinton’s chief speechwriter: How do you write effectively for a policy-driven candidate who is allergic to campaign-speak? For Schwerin, a fellow lover of the policy weeds, that’s the challenge that makes the job so interesting.

But it’s also deeper than just a speechwriting problem: It's about how the most experienced person to ever run for the White House continues to struggle with one of the most basic parts of the job: committing to a message that helps establish a general sense of affection from the electorate.

After all, the most memorable slogan of her campaign — “I’m With Her” — didn’t even come from the campaign, it was started organically by supporters on Twitter and just stuck better than any official slogan has.

“She’s very methodical and driven by lists,” said a veteran staffer. “She has to check her list off, she has to talk about this policy, and that policy, thank these people. Once you get through the lists, the speech can be very boring. Few people can break through with Hillary in that.”

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Clinton is fortunate in that the problem is diminished in this year’s general election — campaigning as the anti-Donald Trump has quickly consolidated Democratic support over the past six weeks. And she has connected, at moments, with the history-making aspect of her run, speaking emotionally about the influence of her mother, Dorothy Rodham.

But the struggle continues as she tries to find her voice — one day preaching a mantra of “love and kindness,” the next positioning herself as a street fighter. And it falls on Schwerin, Sullivan and their speechwriting team, whose daily assignment is to craft speeches for a reluctant candidate who would feel more comfortable giving a policy seminar.

Now Clinton confronts one of the biggest speeches of her campaign to date: the convention address, in which she will accept the Democratic nomination. Democrats close to the campaign said she can probably slide by with a paint-by-numbers anti-Trump screed. But they’re hoping she is able to do something more — to articulate a message that makes her something more than ““likeable enough.”

It’s no easy task.

“We’re preoccupied with one question,” Sullivan said in an interview from the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters, seated at a busted ping pong table that now serves as a conference table. “How do you break through the din out there with a positive message that people can really hear? What is the device, the language, the story, that will allow us to break through? I think we have an opportunity here.”

There’s an opportunity, but also a challenge — going back to the terrain that is most uncomfortable for Clinton, that is, making a speech selling herself.

“This is an election that is fundamentally about, ‘who's looking out for me,’” said Mo Elleithee, executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics, who served as traveling press secretary on Clinton’s 2008 race. “She has to be able to convince people that she is their champion. At key moments, she has done it effectively. The key is to do it consistently.”

There’s a shorthand at the Brooklyn HQ for the gold standard in a Clinton speech: “Doha.”

“Let’s do Doha for Wall Street,” they say, or, “let’s do Doha for climate change.”

“Doha” refers to the speech Clinton gave as secretary of state in 2011, when she told Arab leaders that their countries risked “sinking into the sand” if they didn’t enact major political and economic reforms. It was penned by Schwerin, and in Clinton circles, the speech symbolized an important moment of speaking truth to power — and has become the goal post for most of her campaign speeches.

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Her aides think she best hits the “Doha” high water mark when talking about a single issue in depth, like the country’s problem with systematic racism. “The racial justice speeches have been a hallmark and a moral center for this campaign,” said Clinton’s senior policy adviser, Maya Harris. “She’s been deeply impacted by the Mothers of the Movement.”

But the unanswered question now is, how does she do Doha for Hillary Clinton?

For the big-ticket address, the campaign now has a system. Clinton will sit down with Sullivan, Schwerin, speechwriter Megan Rooney (a rising star on the campaign) and sometimes Palmieri or Podesta, to discuss her general goal. Either Schwerin or Rooney will write up a first draft that gets shared with the consultants: senior strategist Joel Benenson, and consultants Jim Margolis and Mandy Grunwald.

Schwerin runs point: He involves players outside the campaign bubble. He often calls veteran Clinton hands Maggie Williams, Cheryl Mills or Jim Kennedy for a gut check, to ask, simply: “Does this sound like her?”

He sometimes asks Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, for input. Clinton’s longtime speechwriter Lissa Muscatine — who wrote her 2008 convention address — is no longer involved with the campaign, but has been brought in to help with big ticket addresses like her victory speech when she clinched the nomination, sources said.

But it falls on Schwerin to juggle all the players, including the major last minute edits and inputs that are often faxed in on deadline by Bill Clinton. The former president is part of a process in which the Clinton campaign never gives out a copy of prepared remarks to reporters ahead of time because there are almost never any prepared remarks to give.

“Bill Clinton is a whole extra layer of difficulty,” said Favreau. “There was no person who would step in at the end and have all these edits for Obama. Valerie Jarrett never did that, Michelle Obama never did that.” But it’s how the Clintons have functioned for decades.

The speechwriters go back and forth with Hillary Clinton on multiple drafts, the candidate sometimes scrawling her edits on paper and then taking a picture with her phone and sending it to Schwerin. (“Can you get a little closer?” he’s had to ask her at times.)

Even if Clinton sees a first draft weeks in advance, it inevitably comes down tomaking final changes with Schwerin late the night before or even the day of a speech. “The key is to have a speechwriter that knows her fairly well — that she can stay up with until 4 a.m. with no makeup, glasses on, maybe having wine, while they’re working,” said a veteran staffer. “And that person has to have the confidence to tell her: ‘This isn’t working, where’s the inspiration?’”

Part of her problem can be too much tinkering and too many people giving advice. “Everyone puts in their two cents,” said the staffer. “That’s when the speech gets lost.”

It’s the opposite of Bill Clinton’s process: The former president likes to write his own speeches from scratch before giving them to a few people for feedback.

But even the more methodical and wonky Clinton seems to understand the need for something bigger than herself, beyond dry policy details, on convention night.

Before her speech on the night she clinched the Democratic nomination, for instance, Clinton told Schwerin to capture some of what she saw on rope lines across the country: fathers bringing their daughters to witness history. “Bigger,” was her main feedback, draft after draft. She wanted the speech to to stand apart from any standard primary night victory speech. It was Schwerin who suggested using her mother, Dorothy Rodham, as the emotional core of the address, which Clinton latched onto.

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It's the kind of input that comes with an intimacy between speechwriter and candidate developed over years working together. “Dan is uniquely qualified to write for her for the same reason I was uniquely qualified to write for Obama in 2008 — because I’ve known him for so long,” said Favreau. “It’s a mind-reading exercise at times — especially on the campaign, when you don’t have the opportunity to sit down with the person and know what’s on their mind.”

At some point, Favreau said, a good speechwriter transitions from knowing “how the person speaks to how the person thinks.” For Schwerin, that transition happened while co-writing Clinton’s memoir, “Hard Choices,” after she left the State Department, and penning all the paid speeches she has steadfastly refused to make public.

The Schwerin devotion to Clinton is a family affair: His younger brother, Josh, works on the campaign’s communications team. And his older brother, Ben, has previously worked at Bill Clinton’s Harlem office as the former president’s scheduler.

For Dan Schwerin, it’s been a steady rise to Clinton’s inner circle from the lowly position of intern in her Senate office, which he joined in 2005. There, he updated the website, served as staff photographer in a pinch — and used an internal write-up of the inter-Senate softball games as his main creative outlet (“Hill's Angels Say Bayh Bayh to Perfect Season,” was the headline for Schwerin’s write-up of a game Clinton’s Senate staff lost 19 to 1 against Sen. Evan Bayh’s staff in 2008).

But now he’s most often the author and point person for any major address Clinton delivers. “Dan is in many ways the model Hillary Clinton lifer,” said her traveling spokesman, Nick Merrill. “He started as an intern, making copies and sorting mail. Hillary Clinton saw something in him, nurtured it, and 10 years later he’s emerged as central to her efforts to express herself to voters.”

The general election slogan, “Stronger Together,” will be the binding theme of her convention address, aides said. The challenge for Schwerin in the coming weeks will be how to put meat on those bones.

“Hillary’s challenge is to make ‘stronger together’ more than a bumper sticker or a tagline for an ad,” Favreau said. “She has to own it. She has to make it hers. And that means vividly and passionately painting a picture of what ‘stronger together’ looks like for America. ‘Change We Can Believe In’ by itself was nothing to write home about. It only worked because Obama was always ready with specific examples, policies and stories that helped illustrate what change really meant.”

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