Gut Check: How to Stay Calm and Confident in the Turbulence of Hillary's Campaign

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

1. Every National Campaign Is a Challenge

A national political campaign is a risky and complex undertaking involving the creation of an ad hoc entity tasked with mobilizing millions of people across the country and scaling that entity from scratch to become a billion dollar organization in a matter of months.

Campaigns exist and function in a turbulent atmosphere. Reporters, pundits, columnists, commentators, politicians and political operatives unleash a stream of opinion and conjecture designed to frame the national debate. Pollsters flood the airwaves with imperfect and often misleading numbers. Research groups employ sophisticated techniques to manipulate public opinion. Voters struggle to make sense of it all, forming views based more on instinct and intuition than on facts and figures.

The advent of digital communication has further complicated the process. More voices, more speed, more immediacy, more noise, more uncertainty, more emotion, more confusion.

In this jumble, strategists look for clarity, for paths to victory. Ultimately, only one candidate and one team will prevail. It is invariably a tumultuous journey. Even in a data-driven age, where predictive analytics can divine the proclivities of individual voters down to their choice of beverage, running a campaign is a process of guessing, adapting, taking chances, hoping and praying.

For American women, successfully navigating a presidential campaign to its conclusion has thus far been an insurmountable challenge.

Hillary Clinton is essentially attempting to achieve the heretofore impossible. No female has ever overcome the institutional gender barriers barring women from the U.S. presidency.

2. The Gender Obstacle Is Very Real  

Since the official launch of Hillary's campaign, we have chronicled her quest, adopting a robust stance in support of her candidacy. We do this for our daughters and in solidarity with women and girls across the globe whose never-ending oppression is a monumental travesty of human life. 

In Jimmy Carter’s words, "the most serious and unaddressed worldwide challenge is the deprivation and abuse of women and girls."

We support Hillary not just because she is a woman, but because we believe she is the most qualified and experienced candidate in the race, with the best policies and the capacity to carry them out. We support Hillary not because we agree with her on everything (we don’t), but because we admire her fortitude, her tenacity, her intelligence, her dignity, her indomitable and indefatigable spirit. 

We support Hillary’s campaign not because we think her staff and strategists are beyond reproach (nobody is), or because we think they are running a flawless operation (no one ever has), but because they are doing their best in an incredibly difficult environment. Peter has worked side by side with many of them and knows they are some of the most talented and dedicated political staffers in the country.

Further motivating us is the disgust we feel with the reprehensible treatment Hillary receives at the hands of the corporate media and elite commentariat. We are not ashamed or afraid to call out sexism where we see it. We have been diligent in avoiding an overbroad definition of gender bias, but sadly, even narrowly defined, it pervades this election.

We've spent months compiling and analyzing the terms used to undermine Hillary's public image and we've compared them to the terminology used to describe male politicians:

  • A male candidate is smart, while Hillary is “calculating, scheming, crafty, manipulative.”
  • A male candidate values privacy, while Hillary is “secretive, suspicious, paranoid, uncommunicative.”
  • A male candidate takes strong positions, while Hillary is “polarizing, divisive, alienating.”
  • A male candidate deserves the benefit of the doubt, while Hillary is “untrustworthy, corrupt, deceitful, dishonest, unethical.”
  • A male candidate is an achiever while Hillary is “over-ambitious, will do or say anything to win.”
  • A male candidate is diplomatic while Hillary is “inauthentic, disingenuous, fake, unlikable, insincere.”
  • A male candidate is solid and unflappable, while Hillary is “machine-like, robotic, abnormal, cold.”
  • A male candidate is a confident leader, while Hillary is “inevitable, defiant, imperious, regal, testy.”
  • A male candidate is experienced, while Hillary is “old, out of touch, represents the past.”

A quintessential example of the double standard facing Hillary is the chorus of voices demanding her apology for using an email system that was perfectly within her legal right while Donald Trump has spent the summer demeaning women, embracing xenophobia, and smearing a POW without the media and elite commentariat clamoring for an apology. 

To those who suggest we're using sexism to shield Hillary from criticism, we say no, not all opposition to Hillary's candidacy is sexist. Far from it. Fair disagreements are part of our political process. We disagree with her on more than one issue. But yes, we must call out gender bias where we see it. Speaking up and speaking out is part of bringing about change. Silencing those who dare call things what they are is part of how a culture of fear is perpetuated.

Anyone who thinks that a 226 year shutout in national politics is some accident or coincidence needs a major reality check. Bernie Sanders gets it right:

“I don’t know that a man would be treated the same way that Hillary is,” he said. “Some of it is sexist.”

Like racism, sexism is a fact of life. To those who claim we are too vocal about the gender aspects of 2016, we respectfully suggest that we are not vocal enough. Of all the ways we can spend our limited time on earth, loudly and firmly advocating against gender bias is one we consider eminently worthwhile.

3. False Assumptions Lead Voters Astray  

We have always rejected the absurd storyline that Hillary Clinton would coast to the Democratic nomination. It was folly to assume that a serious and widely respected challenger wouldn’t emerge; that she wouldn’t be swiftboated; that her campaign wouldn’t be met with a frenzy of personal attacks. If you bought into the "inevitability" narrative, if you thought there'd be no serious opposition for the nomination, then in the famous Seinfeld phrase, “no soup for you!” 

From our vantage point, the events of this summer were entirely expected. Our introductory #HillaryMen post in June predicted the following:

This is just the beginning. The incoming fire will only become more intense and more personal. There is no easy road to the White House. For a woman, that road is astronomically harder.

As we make the Labor Day pivot into the heart of the campaign season, the spotlight will focus on the horse race that is the Democratic nomination process. Bernie Sanders, who we like and respect, is polling strongly in his neighboring New Hampshire and doing well in Iowa, where Martin O’Malley also maintains a strong ground game. Vice President Joe Biden, who we also like and respect, is poised to join the race.

The state of play has shifted and is continually shifting. Assumptions that were operative two months ago are inoperative today.

We take pride in publicly bucking the initial mockery of Donald Trump and warning that he would be a serious contender. The almost universal assumption that he would fizzle is no longer valid, though many Republican insiders still cling to it. Likewise, the assumptions that undergirded Hillary’s entry into the race have been invalidated.

In any endeavor, operating under false assumptions is a recipe for failure. One of the ways Hillary's detractors undercut her is to set up false assumptions and measure her against them.

4. Resisting the Impulse to Second Guess Campaign Strategy

The swiftness of the changing circumstances in the 2016 race has caught many people by surprise, even those who have aggressively worked to create that change. For Hillary’s supporters, this past summer has been the equivalent of a sudden hundred foot drop during turbulence, where passengers catch their breath, grab their seats with sweaty palms and pray that the pilots can guide them to smoother skies.

It is typically at this point in many a long slog to the presidency that candidates and campaigns come under intense scrutiny and criticism from their own parties and their own supporters. At this nose-bleed altitude, American politics is rocky and unpredictable. Guiding a massive craft through a line of towering storms is no easy task. Everyone worries, and everyone has advice to give. This is especially true of Democrats.

But at the end of the day, going wobbly never helps. Second guessing the campaign exacerbates negative narratives. In Hillary’s case, her detractors are salivating at the thought of Democratic infighting. The masters of framing want desperately to tell the story of a campaign with its wheels coming off, a candidate flailing, a party lost at sea, a Clinton finally crashing and burning.

Feeding that narrative is anathema to us.

That said, we have no intention of battling on behalf of Hillary with faulty and comforting assumptions.

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle. – Sun Tzu

John Podesta, the Clinton campaign's chairman, recently said, “Obviously, we’ve had some headwinds, especially around the email question.”

Whether we call it turbulence or chop (pilot parlance) or headwinds, there's no doubt we're in for a bumpy ride. Could more have been done to prepare for the headwinds? That question is of little practical use at this point. Like all political and media consultants (our day jobs), we have our own thoughts on strategy. But we know enough not to think we’re smarter than the people Hillary has surrounded herself with. Politics has its share of Monday morning quarterbacks. We’d prefer not to play that role.

Indeed, there are inherent strengths to the campaign that reflect and exemplify a well-crafted long term strategy. Hillary has mounted an incredibly strong field organizing effort in all of the early states, and is rolling out a full 50-state initiative with strong backing for Democratic Party-building efforts.

In Iowa, for example, the campaign has nearly 80 paid staffers and a virtual army of volunteers in all 99 counties. There are similarly comprehensive efforts in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The vast array of photos and posts on social media don't lie – this is a strong, well organized and enthusiastic grassroots campaign.

Furthermore, from the candidate and her patented but under-rated listening skills to her team of wonks and advisers, the policy work of Hillary 2016 has been uniformly excellent and represents not just a politically winning collection of positions and proposals, but the genuine intellectual curiosity and deep involvement of the candidate herself.

From immigration and criminal justice reform, to economic fairness and issues like college affordability, addiction, and opportunity for small business, the campaign has been extremely sharp and forward-looking. This matters because the debates matter, and so does the candidate's view of our shared future.

5. The Formidable Skill of Hillary’s Attackers

Hillary’s opponents are very good at what they do; they are masters of the art of political destruction and of the twisted logic that traps and disorients their target. The double-barreled salvo they’ve hit her with – the Foundation and the emails – has taken its toll. Political “gaslighting” is a frightfully efficient way to damage someone’s character.

Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

The laughable notion that Hillary is somehow responsible for failing to quell the email story is a form of political gaslighting. As we wrote in a recent post:

Hillary’s detractors want to see her grovel. They will hammer away at the email faux-scandal until they get what they want. And they will blame her for it if they don't.  

How many times will we hear the media and commentariat accuse Hillary of "allowing" the email story to drag on? How often will we hear them criticize her for "not putting it to rest?"

What a farce. Hillary can no more stop these people from obsessing over the emails than she can stop the sun from rising tomorrow.

If not the email story, it would be the Foundation, if not the Foundation, some other fabricated scandal would be cooked up and subjected to the maddening process where reporters and pundits make news then "objectively" report on it. As we've written:

Those calling Hillary a liar have absolutely no basis in reality for their views. They are simply parroting what pundits and reporters are feeding them. The process is as simple as it is ugly and effective: the media and commentariat incessantly repeat that Hillary is hiding something with her emails, that she is unethical and dishonest, or at least appears to be. They ramble on hour after hour, day after day smearing her, attacking her character. Then, lo and behold, polls find the public regurgitating those attacks and a renewed frenzy commences from the very same people who started the process, saying “look, look, the public agrees with us!”

The torrent of invective hurled at Hillary in 2015 (and in decades prior) is unlike anything any other candidate has ever faced. That she is still standing, let alone winning, is mind-boggling. Her ability to withstand incoming fire borders on the heroic. 

Imagine how another candidate would fare if half a billion dollars were spent to demolish their character and large portions of the national media attacked them on a daily basis. Would that candidate still be in the race? Of course not.

6. Success Depends on Adopting Accurate Assumptions

There is a new reality and new assumptions post Labor Day: Hillary will have to earn the nomination in hand-to-hand combat, fighting for every delegate. Her campaign is signaling that they are ready for that fight.   

There will also be new frames and narratives parroted by Hillary’s opponents. We’re already beginning to hear the commentariat draw parallels with 2008. We’re hearing talk of firewalls; pundits and reporters are touting the end of Hillary’s supposed “inevitability.”

2016 is not 2008. It is not 2012. If anything, the 2004 election and the assault on John Kerry’s character is the closest to what we’re seeing today with Hillary. The conservative taking points funded by Rove, the media’s eagerness to validate personal attacks and smears, these were hallmarks of 2004, which Peter experienced firsthand in Kerry’s war room. In March, when the Clinton Foundation came under sustained attack, Peter wrote this:

The Kerry attacks were about planting seeds of doubt about his service. The media’s role was one of legitimation and magnification. Under the rubric of what they believed was justifiable news reporting, the major outlets gave the swift boat attacks the legitimacy they lacked on Free Republic. 

Similarly, the full-scale barrage hitting the Clinton Foundation is the result of a complicated interplay among conservative oppo shops, rightwing authors, GOP politicians and the mainstream media, with the latter acting, once again, as a legitimating force.  

The unacknowledged hallmark of true swiftboating is that we fail to recognize the damage before it is too late.

Hillary Clinton is on track to win the Democratic nomination and the general election. Her campaign is guided by steady hands.

It is now time to adjust to the shifting atmosphere around her, acknowledge the impact of the summer of 2015 and move swiftly to take advantage of the new reality. 

There is a flawed but obstinate piece of conventional wisdom from the bruising 2008 Democratic nomination contest claiming that Hillary was a bad candidate, that she “blew a big lead,” and that her “collapse” led to President Obama’s nomination. For one, this demeans the efforts of Barack Obama, who was himself a strong and historic candidate who performed brilliantly when the chips were down. For another, it dismisses the same obvious talents possessed by Hillary on the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008, the talents and steely nerve that led President Obama to nominate her for Secretary of State.

Yes, she finished a close second in that race and yes, there were problems with that campaign. But there are problems with every campaign. At this time eight years ago, many Obama supporters were complaining loudly about the state and energy level and preparedness of his campaign.

The correct assumption for Hillary's campaign and supporters is that the coming months will be immensely challenging and that the forces arrayed against the first woman with a viable shot at the White House will do everything in their power to take her down.

Over the long haul of this race, there will be many more terrifying moments, more severe and stomach-churning turbulence. Some Democrats will lose faith, others will succumb to bickering and back-biting. It is an unavoidable part of the process.

7. The Battle for Equality, Fairness and Justice

As long-time activists and students of history, we know that all presidential campaigns are hard, but that this one, with women’s equality and fairness on the line, requires singular courage and perseverance. These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to right historic wrongs demand big thinking, big vision, guts and resolve.

The road to justice is paved with the spirits of those who fought for it and littered with those who fought against it. Barack Obama would not be president without the sacrifices of the great civil rights leaders who put their lives on the line to clear a path for him. Hillary would not be within striking distance of the presidency were it not for the brave women (and men) who fought with all their might for women’s rights.

The battle for justice is larger than we are, it will outlast us. Being part of it is an honor and we cherish it.  

So this is our admonition: a successful campaign requires our strength as well as Hillary’s. We are backing the candidate who has more conviction, stamina, and intellectual willpower than any candidate in the field, perhaps more than several of them combined. If Hillary stays aloft, gets past the bumps and reaches her destination, we know that long after we’re gone, women and girls will look back at this moment in history as an inflection point when the impossible become the possible.

There are less than five months to Iowa, six months to Super Tuesday. Let’s help Hillary get across the finish line by matching her intensity and her will to succeed. 

Let’s fight to win. 

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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.