Analysis:: Now that she’s made history, Hillary Clinton must build trust

Balloons and confetti fall as Hillary Clinton and Senator Tim Kaine appear before the crowd at the end of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic nomination for president came with a nod to her decades at the center of American politics — and to the introduction she still needs to make if she is to win in November.

One of the best-known women in the world since the 1990s, Clinton is betting that she can defy the negative impressions that most voters have of her and restore some measure of trust with a distrustful electorate.

“Now, sometimes the people at this podium are new to the national stage,” she said, adding with sardonic timing: “As you know, I’m not one of those people.”

“I get that some people just don’t know what to make of me,” she said. “So let me tell you.”

The first woman to become the presidential nominee of a major political party then detailed the years she had spent in public service and her goals for a presidency. She did spend time criticizing her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. But criticism of a man less popular even than she is not Clinton’s chief need for the next three and a half months.


Clinton’s challenge, then, is to persuade people to accept the version of her forwarded at the convention.

The debate over which Hillary is the real Hillary has consumed her entire public life.

Friends and co-workers call her a loyal and considerate woman who has spent her life according to her Methodist calling — to “do all the good you can.” That is nearly the reverse of her public persona as a tough character willing to do anything or change any position to accomplish her ambitions.

The tension between those characterizations — one dominating this week’s Democratic gathering, and the other leveled by Republicans at their convention last week — will define the general election.

It is a critical problem. For most female candidates, trustworthiness is a chief asset. Clinton cannot take full advantage of that because so many voters dislike and mistrust her.

So, day after day in Philadelphia, convention speakers testified to how Clinton had met them, or worked to help them, and had stayed in touch with them for years on end, remembering intimate parts of their lives.

On Tuesday’s roll call of the states, a childhood friend of Hillary Clinton’s announced that Illinois’ 98 delegates were siding with her.

“This one is for you, Hill,” said a choked-up Betsy Ebeling, who grew up with Clinton in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge.

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The highest-profile speakers, meanwhile, worked to redefine the new nominee by merging her personas, casting her as both a caring mother and enough of a brawler to be ushered into campaign events to the lyrics of “Fight Song.”

Implicit in that approach is a redefinition of the issue of trust. Speakers at the convention repeatedly have sought to define “trustworthy” by extolling Clinton’s sense of commitment to her causes, her friends and those on whose behalf she has fought. That was an argument that she herself made on Thursday night, if with more humility than other speakers.

There were a million mentions of her post-college work protecting children, preserving the right to public education for young black men, registering Latinos to vote in Texas, and pressing past the defeat of her early healthcare plan to tailor programs for poor children and adoptees.

No one mentioned head-on the causes of Clinton’s trust problems — most recently, her use of a private email server while secretary of State and her Wall Street connections. Nor, in her speech, did Clinton.

Only Obama mentioned the factor that Clinton herself most often blames: a concerted effort by Republicans to demonize her.

But there were admissions that Clinton is a flawed candidate.

“Look, Hillary’s got her share of critics,” Obama said Wednesday night. “She has been caricatured by the right and by some on the left.… But she knows that’s what happens when you’re under a microscope for 40 years.”

“She knows that sometimes during those 40 years she’s made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do. That’s what happens when we try.”

Vice President Joe Biden, speaking before Obama, cited Clinton’s long work to expand healthcare — which dates back decades — as an example of her persistence in fighting for Americans.

“Hillary understood that for years millions of people went to bed staring at the ceiling, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if I get breast cancer, or he has a heart attack,’” he said. “‘I will lose everything, what will we do then?’ I know about Hillary Clinton.”

Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine was the most blunt.

“Let’s talk about trust,” he said. “I want to tell you why I trust Hillary Clinton.”

She was consistent in her passion for kids and families, he said, adding acerbically: “Donald Trump has a passion, too. It’s himself.”

And Kaine alluded to his son, a Marine newly deployed among NATO troops in Europe.

“I trust Hillary Clinton with our son’s life,” he said. “Now you know who I don’t trust? Hmm, I wonder. Donald Trump.”

Democrats are fond of pointing out that Bill Clinton also was seen as untrustworthy in his reelection race, but won by persuading voters he was a better option than the Republican nominee, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

“A lot of this has to do with where voters are trying to get to,” said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for the former president. “I do think a lot of voters are trying to get to not vote for Trump.”

What you missed on the closing day of the Democratic National Convention. More coverage at See other Democratic roundups here and catch up on the Republian convention here.

But Bill Clinton also had the wind at his back, with an improving economy and a party that was situated in the middle of the electorate. His wife is seeking the third successive Democratic term in a country in which the ragged recovery remains a huge issue propelling the opposing candidate, and she’s commanding a party that has moved substantially to the left.

So the redefinition has begun in earnest. On Thursday night, Clinton was introduced by her daughter, Chelsea, who provided loving details of the mother she said she adores — how they hunted for shapes in the clouds, and wondered together what it would be like to meet a triceratops.

The fond wishes of daughters don’t always carry weight in an electorate as unruly and unhappy as today’s, however.

In a hallway of the Philadelphia arena where Clinton would soon accept the nomination, Massachusetts delegate Roberta Goldman said she had been watching Clinton for decades.

“All of us who have seen her in all those elections of Bill Clinton’s, and Barack Obama, and as secretary of State — this means a great deal,” said Goldman, a part-time English teacher from Shrewsbury, just west of Boston. “It’s very very exciting.”

“Right from the get-go, you know, she was the smartest, even though I love Bill and I love Barack. She’s very warm.”

But Goldman serves as a volunteer canvassing for voters, and she said questions of trust come up often.

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“The negatives make me very sad,” she said. “It’s all part of the opposition party. They created this image of her. There is no contrast — we’re talking Donald Trump as their nominee.”

The problem, she said, is that answering those questions successfully takes time, and explanation.

“I’m working on the language here,” she said.

But she knows it may not be easy.

Twitter: @cathleendecker


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