The Secret Weapon Behind Hillary’s Dramatic Resurgence

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

Through the ups and downs, the highs and lows and the twists and turns of a campaign, we always return to the same accepted wisdom:

When all is said and done, it's about the candidate.

No campaign structure, no amount of money, no slick ads, no digital wizardry – and certainly, no strategists – can substitute for authentic grit, tenacity and talent when the chips are tossed on the stage and the klieg light glare hits one person and one person alone.

This is especially true in presidential races at the top of the field. Candidates may deploy the best operations money can buy, but there are make or break moments where they must stand as solitary figures and face the public, unadorned, unfiltered and unprotected. In our view, this is fair; it defines what it takes to be President of the United States.

Last spring when we planned the launch of #HillaryMen, we bet our personal and professional reputations on Hillary Clinton because of her character and her integrity. We didn’t consider whether she could raise the most money, hire the brightest team, get the biggest endorsements or run the smartest policy shop.

We focused on the thing that mattered most to us: that Hillary is a person of immense courage, conviction, fortitude and grace who can stand in the arena, absorb the often brutal onslaught, and soldier forward in the best interests of our nation. What’s more, we knew she could carry the political battle to those who would hinder the cause of realistic progressive policy.

Hillary’s personal strength is legendary. Last July we used the term “Hillary strong” to describe it. Or, as our friend Addie Stan writes in the American Prospect, "There's tough, and then there's Hillary-tough."

That toughness was on full display at the Benghazi hearings as Hillary walked alone into the arena and fought a titanic struggle against the Republican caucus in Congress, against the billionaire conservative funding network and their Rovian consultants, and against a Beltway media pack eager to see her fail.

And she won.

Not on a split decision. Not on the judges’ cards. But by inflicting a dominating, punishing, historic knockout.

This was Gandalf at the gates of Mordor stuff. Few instances in recent American political history outside of actual elections have provided such a spin-free and decisive moral victory. Make no mistake: the image of a tough and accomplished woman staring down the angry jackals of the Benghazi committee in a government where women are still not equal partners will be one of the most enduring images of this entire presidential campaign. 

We are not the least bit surprised that Hillary prevailed, even when Republicans on the committee were unscrupulous enough to use the graves of heroes as props in their mission to destroy her. 

Remember, it always comes down to the candidate.

With the Republicans licking their wounds after getting blasted for savagely hounding her, we figured it was a good time to assess the trajectory of the 2016 race. How did Hillary survive the summer onslaught and defy her detractors?

She did it by being Hillary Clinton, by drawing on her inner discipline and on well-honed instincts. And she did it by drawing strength from her millions of supporters who see past the media/pundit spin – supporters who stuck with her through a summer onslaught the likes of which we’ve never seen.

It wasn’t a single event that precipitated the turn in Hillary’s campaign fortunes. It was Hillary’s steadiness and resilience through stomach-churning turbulence. We wrote about that turbulence and how to cope with it in early September, when things looked increasingly tough for her. We cautioned uneasy Democrats not to second guess her campaign, knowing that Hillary would turn things around.

The inflection point in the 2016 election happened weeks before the pundits saw it. Here’s what we said in mid-September in a post titled Joe Biden’s 2016 Moment Is Gone, Hillary Has Withstood the Summer Assault:

Humans are slow to see paradigm shifts. Typically, it is only in hindsight that we realize the ground has shifted. So far in this presidential race, it shifted once against Hillary. It is now shifting back in her favor. It may be imperceptible to many outside observers, but to anyone who has worked on a national campaign, there’s a gut sense of when the worm has turned. It has turned for Hillary. A good story here, a tightening poll there, and the negative narrative will (grudgingly) give way to a positive one. 

Of course, Hillary is hardly out of the woods. There will be new waves of attack, more vicious rhetoric directed at her, and more fake scandals ginned up. But one thing is for certain: the formidable institutional forces arrayed against her have not succeeded in knocking her out of the race. Hillary has taken a political gut blow, but if anyone can take a punch, it’s Hillary Clinton. The ultimate gender barrier is still on track to be broken.

We’re happy that our assessment has been borne out by events, and we humbly indulge in a “we told you so” (both on Biden’s moment closing and on Hillary’s revival) though we still caution that Hillary has a very tough road ahead: there’s no cakewalk to the White House.

Let’s look at some notable moments in recent weeks where one can see the landscape shifting and the contours of history unfolding.

Saturday, October 3

Hillary appeared on Saturday Night Live as Val, the friendly bartender counseling a super-stressed “Hillary Clinton” (the hilarious Kate McKinnon). The bit worked. Critics found her engaging. She poked fun at herself, showed great timing, and even sang. The highly-rated appearance knocked a big chunk off the sexist frame that insists Hillary is "inauthentic," that she is something other than a real human being.

Sunday, October 4

Hillary joined Rev. Al Sharpton on his new Sunday morning talk show. Looking back, this was a vital moment in the campaign, but few took notice at the time. Sharpton asked pointed but mainly policy-oriented questions, focused heavily on criminal justice reform and civil rights, and the interview was among the most substantive of the campaign to date. It was clear to the political observer class that Hillary both enjoyed the lively discussion and found a very strong footing to move forward with her policy agenda.

Monday, October 5

In New Hampshire, Hillary unveiled her tough gun control policy platform in the wake of the deadly shooting at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon. As CNN’s savvy Dan Merica noted in his coverage, Hillary’s proposal aligned closely with Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina to close the gun show loophole. At a town hall event on gun control at Manchester Community College, Hillary was joined by the mother of a 6-year-old boy who was killed in the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. It was one of the most emotional moments of the campaign.

Tuesday, October 6

As Hillary campaigned in Iowa, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times cannily took note of the care and respect with which the Clinton campaign had treated her chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the run up to the first Democratic debate: “Whether next week’s debate veers off from faint praise into out-and-out hostility will, in many ways, set the tone for the Democratic battle until February’s Iowa caucuses.” As we learned a week later, she was on to something.

Wednesday, October 7

Appearing on PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, Hillary came out against the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement strongly opposed by U.S. labor unions and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The move represented her first substantive policy disagreement with President Obama and signaled her independence as a candidate. While she took some flak from her rivals and the media (as well as displeasing many in the Administration), Hillary didn't back down and insisted it was sometimes good for politicians to learn from the past.

Friday, October 9

Hillary met with organizers from Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement (and organization) working to combat police violence and racism. The session was long and lively, and clearly energized both the candidate and the BLM team. There were no joint statements or group poses; an endorsement was not on the table and BLM (rightly in our view) held itself outside the political party process to organize for change. As MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald reported, Hillary commited to ending private prisons and after the meeting tweeted personally: “Racism is America’s original sin. To those I met with today, thank you for sharing your ideas.”

Saturday, October 10

CNN’s Jake Tapper broke the story of Major Bradley Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve who was fired by the Benghazi Committee after he complained about its hyper-political focus on Hillary. That the officer described himself as a “conservative Republican” emboldened Democrats to take on the GOP leadership and begin to release testimony from the panel on their own.

Sunday, October 11

President Obama told 60 Minutes that he believed that the email issue hyped by the media had been “ginned-up” by Republicans for political gain. His comments followed House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s admission two weeks earlier that the Benghazi committee was designed to drive down Hillary’s poll numbers.

Tuesday, October 13

Hillary dominated the first Democratic Presidential debate, held in a Las Vegas casino. She was in command of the facts and every inch the happy political warrior. As we wrote in the debate's aftermath: “The public sees a brilliant, powerful, experienced leader. Someone who is on track to demolish the ultimate gender barrier in American politics.” The public also saw Bernie Sanders stand up against the cynical exploitation of Hillary’s emails for political gain, effectively knocking down much of the hype around the story: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned emails!”

Wednesday, October 14

This was the day the media’s universally negative narrative of Hillary’s campaign changed noticeably. Because she performed so well in the very arena they admire, political pundits had to give her credit for winning the night. This was also the day that polls began to move. Every scientific poll found Hillary to be the debate winner, and her overall numbers have been climbing since, nationally and in key early states. This was also the day that the national media began to wonder whether Vice President Biden really had a rationale for entering the race. Even the New York Times, which has often seemed to be mounting a campaign against Hillary with inaccurate reporting, ran with this headline: Democratic Debate Turns Hillary Clinton’s Way After Months of Difficulties.

Thursday, October 15

In San Antonio, Hillary accepted the endorsement of the second Obama Administration cabinet member to endorse her, Julián Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The rally prompted talk of a Clinton-Castro ticket, and focused discussion on the vital Hispanic vote in the Democratic primary. “She has always been there for us!” said Castro, who also downplayed talk of Vice President Biden entering the race.

Friday, October 16

The Clinton campaign released its final fundraising numbers for the quarter and they were the strongest of any candidate on either side: $30 million raised, $26 million in the bank. The fundraising success was widely seen as another positive sign for a campaign on the move.

Monday, October 19

The CIA pointedly and publicly countered the Benghazi Committee claim that Hillary “outed” Moussa Koussa, a one-time intelligence chief for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, as a secret intelligence source, noting his name had appeared in many news reports. To make matters worse, Benghazi Committee chair Trey Gowdy inadvertently publicized Koussa’s name, effectively leaking the name of a CIA source while accusing Hillary of doing so.

Tuesday, October 20

Facing an uphill fight and trailing in the polls, Vice President Joe Biden ended months of speculation and announced in the Rose Garden that he would not run for president in 2016. “There was never a clear policy lane for him to convincingly differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton,” wrote Greg Sargent in the Washington Post. In a gracious statement after the VP’s announcement, Hillary said, “I am confident that history isn’t finished with Joe Biden.”

Thursday, October 22

Hillary Clinton stared down the Benghazi Committee on its home turf, winning an 11 hour public endurance contest and proving her mettle in the toughest arena in politics. She further cemented the impression that she is the most “presidential” candidate in the race, displaying deep knowledge of foreign policy and remaining unwavering and unflappable under a withering verbal assault that bordered on the sadistic.

When the history books are written, October 2015 will be remembered as a major turning point in the 2016 presidential campaign.

It came about because Hillary Clinton used her secret weapon: Hillary Clinton.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.