Obviously, these are difficult times for the Clinton campaign, and Barack Obama is the most likely Democratic nominee for president. His messaging strategy, so far successful, has in essence been:
- Pitch “change” as a top-level message.
- Claim that being a pro-change outsider is more conducive to getting things done than being an experienced insider.
- Adopt similar policy positions to his rivals, so as to reduce the chance for differentiation there.
- Show that he’s not “too much” of an outsider, by collecting insiders’ endorsements.
- Claim that primary electoral success demonstrates both that he’s likely to have general election success in the fall and also that he’s likely to lead effectively once elected.
So Clinton desperately needs to differentiate herself from Obama, beneficially, more than she already has. But how?
She’s already tapped out the domestic policy vein. Everybody knows Clinton has immense expertise on health care, and that’s an advantage for her. But otherwise, she and Obama express similar priorities, propose similar programs, and similarly hope that the Republicans won’t convince voters that the Democratic numbers don’t add up.
So Clinton needs to shift the discussion as far back towards foreign policy as she can, simply to create the chance for favorable differentiation versus Obama. But this strategy has further potential advantages as well. They include:
- Defense and foreign policy are the areas where voters historically value experience – certainly more than they do on domestic policy, where since Jimmy Carter they’ve favored outsiders who will try to end business-as-usual.
- Clinton’s experience advantage over Obama is largely in the area of foreign policy, specifically in her globe-trotting as First Lady and her Senate Armed Services Committee work.
- Obama has made a strong “electability” pitch around his consistent opposition to the Iraq War. If Clinton can reestablish perceived superiority in foreign policy, she could recover that aspect of the “electability” story as well. Since McCain will obviously make national defense the cornerstone of his campaign – and by extension foreign policy too – that’s a big deal.
I think there are three specific areas of foreign policy that offer Clinton particularly good chances for competitive advantage.
Health care, children’s rights, etc. — emphasizing her traditional advantages and commitments.
Women’s rights – she can get inspirational on women’s rights, but too rarely shows it during the campaign. What’s more, it’s an issue that obviously resonates with her core (very large!) constituency.
The third item on that list may be rather surprising. So let me explain. Clinton is unlikely to win the nomination unless she out-wonks Obama in a convincing way. And free trade is an issue where he happens to stumble. In Thursday’s debate alone, he twice showed himself to be confused on trade issues. First, he told a story about a steel plant losing out to Chinese competition, and blamed it on NAFTA. Second, even though he’s negative on NAFTA, he spoke favorably of helping the Mexican economy strengthen, create better jobs, and so forth.
Clinton’s calls for a “trade time-out” show that she doesn’t want to run as pure free-trader. Even so, if she aggressively delved into trade details, she could:
- Show command of economic issues.
- Show command of international negotiation issues.
- Remind voters of her and her husband’s accomplishments.
- Remind voters of an important pro-Hispanic position (i.e., pro-NAFTA).
- Co-opt a good point Obama made – she can say he’s right to want to strengthen the Mexican economy, and she’s been long working on that.
- Point up areas where Obama is confused or panders.
This strategy has obvious risks, but I can’t think of another one more likely to succeed.
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