Hillary Clinton, 'Saturday Night Live,' and the New Politics

Tuesday night's Democratic debate brought an unexpected political analogy to mind: Hillary Clinton has become Bob Dole.

That point became eminently clear in the debate multiple times but especially during her attempt to rebuke NBC debate moderators Tim Russert and Brian Williams by evoking a recent "Saturday Night Live" episode which accused the press of being "in the tank" for Barack Obama.

"In the last several debates I seem to get the first question all the time," Clinton said. "I don't mind. I'll be happy to field it. I just find it curious if anybody saw 'Saturday Night Live,' maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow."

Those remarks, while slightly better phrased, are strikingly similar to Bob Dole's "where is the outrage" lament while running against Bill Clinton in 1996. Both candidates:

  • Trailed by rather significant margins in polls
  • Formerly received very positive press coverage
  • Were later eclipsed by "rock star" Democrats in the eyes of the media
  • Lashed out at the media as they fell behind, not realizing that the press cannot prop up bad candidates no matter how much it may wish (ask presidents Dean, Kerry, and Gore)

That last point is an important one for conservatives. Hillary Clinton is using the old playbook of politics. That is the foremost reason why she is losing.

In the age of instant, uninformed analysis where American's personal addressbooks trump elite opinionslingers, knowing how to reach out to the average person, through both positive messaging and free media is what matters most. Add on a good ground game and you have a guaranteed winner.

This piece is headlined "the new politics" but in many ways, the ideas sketched here are really not that new. They are, in fact, the quintessential elements of Reagan-style politics in a more modern packaging.

Unfortunately for conservatives, none of their preferred candidates seemed capable of grasping this point. Whether it was Duncan Hunter, Fred Thompson, Tom Tancredo, or Mitt Romney, each of these candidates failed in some way to realize that you need both modern tactics (Romney, Hunter, Tancredo) and modern strategy (Thompson).

What's most ironic, however, is that in this campaign, the candidate best practicing Reagan politics is not even a conservative. It's Democrat Barack Obama. Steve Hayes has a great piece on this phenomenon in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

I would add only one point to his essay: it is a very unfortunate fact that conservatives in general seem to be suspicious of recalibrating their strategies for the modern age. In far too many conservative political groups, non-profits and party outfits, an unfortunate complacency has set in, a complacency that falsely identifies itself with conservative philosophy. This is a terrible error, however. The dynamic messaging team brought in by Ronald Reagan was the most disruptive communications force since the New Deal. Political conservatism ought not to be strategic complacency.

Led by Mike Deaver, Jim Baker and a host of others, this group was unafraid to rewrite the rules for a new age of media. A similar dramatic overhaul of how conservatism should be presented in the 21st century needs to take place.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013