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This is Hillary Clinton’s New Way to Cop to Criticism

April 29, 2016, 3:24 PM UTC
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Clinton speaks during a campaign event at the AME church in the Queens borough of New York
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at the AME church in the Queens borough of New York April 10, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Eduardo Munoz REUTERS

Got a problem with Hillary Clinton? That’s fair, she says.

The Democratic presidential front-runner has long resisted the kind of public mea culpas that could be seen as bowing to critics who have spent years trying to derail her. She famously refused to apologize for her vote in favor of the Iraq war, only doing so years after it helped cost her the 2008 Democratic primary race against Barack Obama. And her initial response this election cycle to questions about her controversial use of a private email server as Secretary of State left some allies worried the public would think she had something to hide. (“I’m sorry about that,” she eventually said last fall).

But over the course of this year—as she has slowly but surely looked beyond her largely wrapped-up nominating fight against Democratic rival Bernie Sanders and toward a general election matchup in the fall—Clinton has settled on a new approach to criticism: acknowledge it as “fair,” and move on. She has employed the rhetorical pivot at debates, on the campaign trail and in interviews.

When a Sanders supporter at a Good Morning America town hall this month asked her about releasing the transcripts of speeches she gave to Wall Street institutions, she responded: “Well that’s a good question, it’s a very fair question.”

“I think that’s a very fair question,” she said in February when a woman at a New Hampshire town hall asked how Clinton can assure voters she won’t follow her vote for the Iraq war with another foreign policy “mistake of that magnitude.”

“That’s a really fair question,” she said a few days later, when a young voter asked her how she would gain the trust of those who have come to distrust her in the wake of the email controversy and the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

And shortly before her narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses, she was asked about a Des Moines Register endorsement that, while laudatory of Clinton, also knocked her for not readily acknowledging her mistakes. “I think that’s a fair criticism,” Clinton said during a CNN town hall.

Politicians are, of course, a notoriously defensive breed, almost always quicker to dig in than to acknowledge shortcomings—few more so than Clinton, who has survived decades of political combat by fighting back, not backing away.

But political observers in both parties say the subtle shift is an important marker of her general election strategy.

“Being able to not bristle at a question, being able to be calm about it, being able to say, ‘Yeah, that was a mistake,’ conveys a sense that she’s a real and rounded human being and not a set of positions that’s standing behind a podium,” said veteran Democratic strategist Robert Shrum. “I think it signals a kind of openness and non-defensiveness, which helps her.”

Others said it allows Clinton to appear more honest, which has been a challenge for her during the campaign, as she’s faced heavy scrutiny over her emails. A recent Washington Post-ABC News national poll found that while 37% of people think Clinton is honest and trustworthy, 59% think she is not. Another national poll conducted by Bloomberg found that just 25% of people said Clinton is more trustworthy than Sanders, while 64% said the opposite.

“Honest and trustworthy is her biggest hurdle, and you have to meet voters where they are,” said Democratic strategist Chris Durlak. “They believe that she has serious challenges when it comes to her practices in the State Department, and they want at least acknowledgement that everything wasn’t perfect.”

While Durlak and other Democratic strategists said the rhetorical change is evidence Clinton has become a better candidate since 2008, Republicans said it won’t alter public perception.

“Tomorrow most voters aren’t going to notice if Hillary changes this little tweak in her messaging software, but they are going to know who Hillary was for 35 years,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson said. “It’s really tough to shake a longtime brand assignment.”

A Clinton campaign spokesman didn’t comment for this story.

Clinton’s long public career makes the new tone an important tactic, said Karrin Anderson, a Colorado State communications professor who has studied Clinton.

“People believe things that comport with stories they’re already familiar with, and that’s something that’s been really tricky for both of the Clintons,” Anderson said. “People reject information that they don’t already believe.”

She said it’s to Clinton’s benefit to acknowledge the validity of criticism, in part because of double standards she might face as the only female candidate.

“Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—their rhetoric is much more confrontational and assertive,” Anderson said, adding that voters are often more likely to accept that behavior from men. “What she’s trying to do, which I think is smart, the quickest way to get it out of the news cycle is to acknowledge and move on, acknowledge and change the conversation.”

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