What’s In an Announcement?

This morning, political Twitter vibrated with anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s completely predictable campaign announcement. This morning, Philip Bump of the Washington Post tweeted, “In all seriousness, can we just pretend the announcement just happened? What will actually change?”

Taken at face value, this is a pretty good question. What difference does an official announcement make? This piece outlines some of the legal reasons why Clinton needs to announce now. And as another political scientist pointed out, not everyone follows politics closely and thus perhaps a formal announcement, and its attendant media circus, brings in different audiences – people who care about big moments in politics but don’t spend most of their waking hours with Twitter, Vox Bloomberg and NYT open on multiple devices (the author is guilty here). I don’t know if it’s true that the Sunday announcement will reach far beyond the ranks of political junkiedom – it’s still very early – but it certainly seems like a plausible thesis.

Nevertheless, the disconnection between Clinton’s formal announcement and the strength of her unofficial candidacy is an interesting phenomenon unto itself. It highlights at least two important aspects of how her candidacy will fit into the larger picture of twenty-first century presidential politics.

The first is that it highlights the “inevitability” narrative (which Rebecca Traister nicely challenges here). Even after Clinton went from “inevitable” to “not the nominee” in about a year during the 2008 contest, the inevitability frame has come back even stronger for this cycle. Why does this keep cropping up? Even if it’s true, it’s boring and undemocratic. One possibility is that it lends an edge of presidential legitimacy to the Clinton candidacy that might otherwise be lacking. This isn’t an indictment of her credentials; plenty of presidents (and candidates) who were extremely well-qualified were never able to establish clear narratives of legitimacy. Clinton seems well-primed to fit into this group. She doesn’t actually represent any clear movement within the Democratic Party (see Nate Silver’s description of Clinton as a “generic Democrat“). The DLC is gone and at any rate she had to emphasize her progressive credentials in 2008, but she doesn’t precisely represent the party’s liberal base either. She is popular with the various factions within the party, but it’s not clear what her candidacy would be responding to or fighting for. (Her announcement video does not provide many clues, although it does briefly raise the inequality theme.) She’s closely affiliated with two Democratic administrations that have ultimately operated like opposition presidencies and spent much of their time defending their agendas from critics. The “inevitability” claim shifts the focus from her political and ideological legacy and toward her qualifications and competence, which is much more solid ground.

The obvious meaning – and the obvious way that she would carry on Obama’s legacy – is by bringing a new demographic group to the office. This was exciting to a lot of people in 2008 and it will be again in 2016. But as inevitable as a Clinton candidacy is media sexism. Emphasizing her own “inevitability” contributes to an image of strength, combating stereotypes of women as weak, flighty, or irresolute. At the same time, stressing the idea that “it’s time” for a woman to run and win allows her to capitalize on the outsider image that women political aspirants often enjoy, and to draw on the positive aspects of a path-breaking candidacy. To the extent that the Clinton announcement today inspires commentary about how we all know she is running, it underscores the “inevitability” narrative, which is important for her candidacy.

The second way that the formal announcement dynamic is important is that it highlights a more general sense that official events and statements do not reflect what is really happening in politics. Richard Skinner has written convincingly here about why authenticity is overrated, and I’ve also made the case that transparency can’t do what we want it to. But the gap between formal statements and informal realities perhaps strains credibility with citizens. In a conference presentation last week on the “post-rhetorical presidency,” Justin Vaughn suggested that presidents “perform leadership while the real business of governing is done elsewhere.” The emphasis on the importance of the invisible primary instead of the formal primaries and caucuses is another example of such a gap. It’s not clear that this is a serious damper on civic engagement – voter turnout has been higher in presidential contests recently. But we all know that civic engagement, political knowledge, and participation are linked with socioeconomic factors. In the political game, wealth and education bring advantage – even if people disagree about how much. The gap between an official announcement and the reality perceived by the most highly engaged citizens perhaps further underscores the idea that democracy works differently depending on who you are. It is a trivial, but perhaps symbolically significant, acknowledgment that elite rhetoric and lived reality sometimes diverge, and that no one with serious influence seems terribly concerned about it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.