The Manufacturing of “Unlikability” in Presidential Candidates

The title of David Brooks’ column today poses one of the more important questions in politics: “Why Is Clinton Disliked?” The answer Brooks comes up with is, to put it mildly, more novel than persuasive. People don’t like Hillary, he says, because she doesn’t have enough hobbies.

Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun? We know what Obama does for fun — golf, basketball, etc. We know, unfortunately, what Trump does for fun.
But when people talk about Clinton, they tend to talk of her exclusively in professional terms…

Clinton’s unpopularity is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic. Workaholism is a form of emotional self-estrangement. Workaholics are so consumed by their professional activities that their feelings don’t inform their most fundamental decisions. The professional role comes to dominate the personality and encroaches on the normal intimacies of the soul. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once put it, whole cemeteries could be filled with the sad tombstone: “Born a man, died a doctor.”

At least in her public persona, Clinton gives off an exclusively professional vibe: industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful. It’s hard from the outside to have a sense of her as a person; she is a role.

This formal, career-oriented persona puts her in direct contrast with the mores of the social media age, which is intimate, personalist, revealing, trusting and vulnerable. It puts her in conflict with most people’s lived experience. Most Americans feel more vivid and alive outside the work experience than within. So of course to many she seems Machiavellian, crafty, power-oriented, untrustworthy.

Is there an element of truth to Brook’s contention? Would some people relate to her more if she were widely known as, say, an avid bowler, or for collecting Grateful Dead bootlegs? Yeah, sure, probably, I guess.

On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias notes in response to the same column, Hillary does in fact have a few favorite pastimes.

I went to a website called Google and searched for “Hillary Clinton hobbies.” I found that she enjoys speed walking, gardening, crossword puzzles, and Scrabble, which seem like pretty normal hobbies for her demographic, much as playing golf and watching basketball on TV are pretty normal hobbies for someone like Barack Obama.

Yglesias goes on to observe that there’s probably a double-standard at play here. As a woman Hillary “needs to be all-professional and extravagantly qualified for the job. And yet having done all that, she’s now this dreary, uncool workaholic who should play more golf.”

I don’t mean to completely belittle Brooks’ effort. Clinton really does need all the help she can get to figure out how to reduce her high unfavorability numbers. In a very real sense, the fate of the country depends on it. If going on morning shows to talk about her strategies for speedwalking or winning at Scrabble will help, she should do it.

Still, the idea that workaholism explains Hillary’s lack of “likability” is ridiculous. As Brooks himself notes, as secretary of state she enjoyed 66 percent approval ratings. And what was she most known for during that time? Her hard work, her willingness to take more trips to meet more people than any previous secretary of state in an effort—largely successful—to repair the reputational damage done to the country’s image by the previous administration. That is, her workaholism.

Her favorabilities only began to plummet after she started running for president again. What that tells me is that the likability problem has less to do with her personally than with the political process.

Consider two other Democratic presidential candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry. Like Hillary Clinton, Gore and Kerry were experienced and accomplished politicians when they ran for the White House. After losing, each went on to do extraordinary things in public life, which strongly suggests that they were likely to have been successful, and perhaps great, presidents. Yet each has wooden public speaking styles. And each was the target of vicious, shameless conservative attacks enabled by a cynical, stenographic press corps. Each of these decent, principled, honest public servants was made to seem to the public as lying, flip-flopping, power-hungry, and out of touch, and each was thus saddled with low “likability” numbers.

Hillary’s numbers on measures such as honesty, trustworthiness, and likability are higher even than Gore’s or Kerry’s ever were. That, I suspect, is the product of her much longer and deeper engagement with contemporary attack politics. To this day, most Americans probably think the Clintons were guilty of wrongdoing in the Whitewater scandal even though that’s demonstrably not the case. Similarly, voters believe Hillary is extraordinarily dishonest, despite hard evidence showing the opposite. The longer a politician is in the arena of presidential politics, the more exposed they get to the insane cycle wherein the press gives credence to GOP lies, the public believes the lies, the press eventually sorta concedes they’re lies but says they’re “an issue” because the public now believes them, and so on.

Bill Clinton has managed to remain more broadly (though not universally) liked than Hillary, largely because of his enormous charm, quick wit, and evident empathy. But such talent is exceedingly rare–or rather, it’s rare to find in a person who also has the other qualities you would want in a president (brains, craftiness, wisdom, experience, deliberativeness, curiosity, work ethic etc). The fact that in the same era the country was handed another such individual, Barack Obama, has to be counted as one of the greatest strokes of good luck in American history.

But we can’t bank on that happening every 4 to 8 years. More often we’re going to get individuals like Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry—admirable, capable, world-class leaders who aren’t especially gifted performers and who subsequently get saddled with “likability” deficits that are way more manufactured than people understand or want to believe.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.