Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has been obsessed over her likability over the last few weeks, spawning appearances on Ellen and awkward statements about being a “real person.” The running assumption is that Clinton needs to be defanged and put into soft focus so that her favorability ratings, which have slumped over the last few months, finally rise. But the charm offensive also plays into the old notion that women can't come off as powerful or threatening if they want to seem relatable, downplaying her real strength as both a politician and a feminist: her reputation as a tough leader who isn’t there to be liked, but to win.
At Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, the strongest case that Clinton can make is that she can prevail in the messy arena of politics where these fights actually happen—against Republicans in the 2016 general election, and against those in Congress who will oppose her presidency from Day One. Simply proving that she's liberal enough based on a checklist of progressive priorities isn't much of a rallying cry for a disillusioned Democratic base. Instead, her challenge will be to contrast rival Bernie Sanders's lofty idealism with her combative pragmatism—her willingness to have it out with Republicans when it counts and to wrest what victories she can.
The former secretary of state showed her combative side at its best last week, launching an ad highlighting House Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s remarks that the Select Committee on Benghazi hurt her poll numbers. Clinton’s message is not simply that Republicans oppose her policy views, but that they’re wasting their time on political shenanigans when there is more important work to be done. “Republicans have spent millions attacking Hillary, because she’s fighting for everything they oppose,” the ad said, flashing the $4.5 million cost of the Benghazi probe over 16 months’ time.
It plays to the broader frustrations that liberals feel about the countless ways that Republicans have wasted their time, fiddling on Capitol Hill with procedural issues while failing to properly govern the nation. Voters on both sides are disillusioned with the political establishment right now, but Clinton is trying to remind her base exactly who tends to anger them the most: Republicans who’ve spent an outrageous amount of time on political fights that go nowhere and keep the country from moving forward.
Now her campaign can rightfully claim its first scalp. When McCarthy abruptly dropped his bid to become speaker last Thursday, he admitted that his remarks about Clinton were “part of the decision” to withdraw. “That wasn’t helpful. I could have said it much better,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to be a “distraction” from the still-ongoing investigation.
Going after Republicans for driving emailgate isn’t going to win over voters who’ve never trusted her, and it doesn’t explain her strong aversion to transparency or her dubious decision to use a private email server while she was secretary of state. However, her Machiavellian tendencies could help her gain traction with voters who believe obstructionism is hurting the country and are willing to be convinced that the GOP is the main offender, not the entire political establishment. It also offers Clinton supporters a more direct way to channel their frustrations about the email controversy that’s hurt her campaign while producing decidedly scant evidence of actual harm done.
Clinton has already begun to use the same approach to go after Republicans on issues other than Benghazi. “That’s what they do when they want to get real political and partisan. They’re going to start a special committee to examine Planned Parenthood,” she said at a recent campaign event. “It’s just a waste of time. It’s a waste of money—I mean, honestly, we have so much to do in this country, and these guys are just playing games with people’s lives all the time.” This promises to be a well to which she’ll return often; if the last few months have been any indication, Congressional Republicans will continue using such ploys to rile up their own base through 2016.
But it can be a well visited too often. If Clinton dwells too much on Republican attacks, she runs the risk of falling back on her old notion of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” So having set up the fight against Republicans, Clinton also needs to explain what kind of fighter she’s going to be. And the former first lady already laid the groundwork for that in the early months of her campaign, presenting herself as an unapologetic liberal who believes that paycheck feminism—greater economic equality and security for working women—is the key to fighting broader economic injustice. So far, she’s spent most of her campaign sketching out the different components of this platform: equal pay, child care support, paid leave, and college affordability.
Thus far, that hasn’t been enough to truly excite a Democratic base that’s already largely united on these issues—and also knows that a Republican-controlled Congress wouldn’t go for most of it anyway. Clinton’s challenge, in the debates and on the trail, is to unite those policy priorities with her ruthless ability to take on Republicans, deploy the right tactics, and get things done as a strong woman in a room full of squabbling children. That’s the fire that’s been missing from her campaign. And the last few seconds of her McCarthy spot suggested that it’s the way forward. After criticizing Republicans for wasting time and money on the Benghazi Committee, the ad flashes the Clinton policy priorities across the screen, while the narrator continues: “From affordable health care to equal pay, she’ll never stop fighting for you, and the Republicans know it.”
It’s unclear how much of Tuesday’s Democratic debate will focus on Republicans at all. Moderators are likely to encourage the candidates to go after each other on issues like the newly-agreed upon Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Clinton has reversed herself on to oppose. But ultimately Clinton’s strongest appeal to the Democratic base won’t be that she’s the most authentic or likable or liberal—but that she’s simply the most effective in doing the job that a Democratic president is most likely to have in January 2017. That means facing down a Republican Congress and muscling through the incremental policy changes that she can through the executive branch. And she's already suggested the tactics that she'll use to move forward, promising to “go further” than Obama on immigration and gun control through executive action.
That isn’t the job description that liberals will like, or want to hear. But the base isn’t the same base that flocked to President Obama’s lofty promises of hope and change in 2008; voters have seen how destructive that Republican intransigence has been. They might be tempted by Sanders’s call to blow it all up by starting a “political revolution,” as he’s explicitly rallied the masses behind. But Clinton’s best comeback—both to her Democratic opponents and to Republicans at large—is that Washington needs an adult in charge who’s tethered to the reality of the possible. It's essentially the case that comedian Tina Fey made for Clinton back in 2008: “Bitches get stuff done.”