Hillary Clinton Needs A New Message, Stat!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 25, 2014 – 5:47 am

Hillary Clinton has been talking about her wealth—or relative lack thereof—a lot lately, and her responses have done more to raise eyebrows and encourage additional follow up questions than to satisfy the questions and put a close to the issue.

The topic came up during an interview with Diane Sawyer earlier this month, and Secretary Clinton fumbled the answer:

DIANE SAWYER: “It has been reported you’ve made $5 million making speeches, the president’s made more than $100 million.”

HILLARY CLINTON: “Well, if you — you have no reason to remember, but we came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy. Bill has worked really hard and it’s been amazing to me. He’s worked very hard, first of all, we had to pay off all our debts which was, you know, we had to make double the money because of obviously taxes, and pay you have at debts, and get us houses and take care of family members.”

Mrs. Clinton may be right on the facts—but no one is likely to relate the struggle of the average American family to a former U.S. president and first lady exiting the White House with enormous future earning potential.

And did she say houses, plural? That tone-deaf answer is stupefying given that John McCain famously committed the same gaffe (he couldn’t remember how many homes he owned) and that Mitt Romney infamously said his wife drives two Cadillacs.

Hillary Clinton Diane Sawyer

Mrs. Clinton doubled down in an interview with The Guardian this week:

“With her huge personal wealth, how could Clinton possibly hope to be credible on this issue [income inequality] when people see her as part of the problem, not its solution?

“But they don’t see me as part of the problem,” she protests, “because we pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off.”

Is she saying that with their millions of dollars, the Clintons aren’t truly well off? That’s a subjective claim. If she’s comparing her family to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, she has a point. But I’d guess most Americans are comparing her to themselves, not to the Buffetts of the world.

(In fairness, that quote could also be read another way: that she’s saying she is well off, but unlike others in her economic class, her family pays income tax. If that was her intent, the ambiguity of her statement is her responsibility.)

What should Mrs. Clinton say?

She should stop the phony pose of pretending she’s just like the average American. She’s not, and I can’t imagine many potential voters expect her to be. Instead, she should simply say: “My husband and I have done very well financially since Bill left the White House. But I understand firsthand the challenges that families face, and I support policies that will make it easier for them to succeed in this economy.” That’s it.

She should also look at the tape of her husband’s 1992 town hall presidential debate, during which a woman asked: “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

Mr. Clinton didn’t discuss his own financial situation—even though it was presumably much less impressive at the time. Instead, he discussed his personal experience with people who were hurting and described how his policies would help them.

I wouldn’t be opposed to Mrs. Clinton describing her modest upbringing. But describing their obvious wealth as anything less is a bad strategy destined to backfire.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.



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The Smear Cycle: Hillary Clinton May Have Brain Damage

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 15, 2014 – 6:02 am

Karl Rove, the former top advisor to President Bush, launched a new smear campaign against Hillary Clinton late last week. Speaking at a conference, Rove brought up Clinton’s 2012 health scare, during which she spent several days in a hospital. From The New York Post:

“Thirty days in the hospital?” Rove said, according to Page Six. “And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.”

The headline of that piece, “Karl Rove: Hillary May Have Brain Damage,” was exactly what Rove sought. That headline triggered many others (American Thinker went with “Might Hillary Clinton Have Suffered a Stroke?”), and forced the story into the mainstream media. Suddenly, outlets including The Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, and MSNBC were talking about Mrs. Clinton’s health. 

Hillary Clinton Leaves Hospital

Here are some facts: Hillary Clinton was not in the hospital for thirty days; she was in the hospital for four, and physicians anticipated a recovery with “no long-term consequences.”

To be clear, there are legitimate questions about Clinton’s health and age. Similar questions have been posed about Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain (among others), and it isn’t sexist or ageist to pose such questions.

But Rove’s smear wasn’t a genuine attempt to raise questions about Clinton’s fitness for office. It was a classic Lee Atwater-like tactic intended to damage his party’s most likely opponent. (Atwater, also a former Republican strategist, repented for his brand of scorched-earth politics on his death bed.)

True to the tactic, Rove quickly backed away from his statement and dissembled, claiming he never used the term “brain damage.” (That’s true; he said “traumatic brain injury,” which conveys the same message.) There’s no need for the person who launched the gossip cycle to defend it once people are already talking about it; he can walk away, pretending his hands are clean, while others carry the message for him. 


Hillary Clinton’s Team Did Something Similar

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Campaign Strategist, Mark Penn, appeared on Hardball and repeatedly mentioned the fact that Barack Obama had used cocaine—and he did it in that sleazy political way of pretending that he wasn’t talking about that issue: 

“We’ve made clear that the [unintelligible] related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.”

Catch that? Penn simultaneously raised the issue of cocaine use, which helped it remain a media story, while disingenuously pretending that his campaign didn’t want to talk about it. (It wasn’t the first time a Clinton confidante employed that strategy; Clinton later apologized.) Joe Trippi, John Edwards’s senior strategist who appeared on Hardball next to Penn, confronted Penn for using that tactic.

(Exchange begins at 3:54)


The Smear Cycle

This tactic is used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and it’s often effective. The smear cycle looks something like this:

Smear Cycle

That cycle is unlikely to change. But at least we can diminish its power by recognizing when it’s unfolding before us.

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Is Hillary Clinton “Too Old” To Become President?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 30, 2013 – 8:24 pm

Some Republicans have hatched a new plan to defeat possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — by saying she’s too old and “out of touch” for the job.

According to Saturday’s New York Times, some Republican politicians, strategists, and media figures are already trying to weaken the former Secretary of State. Here are some of their noteworthy comments:

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY): He “ridiculed the 2016 Democratic field as “a rerun of ‘The Golden Girls.’”

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA): “The reality is, when you look at the Democrats, they’ve got old, tired ideas being produced by old, tired candidates.”

Rush Limbaugh (Radio host): “Asked his audience in April whether the American people ‘want to vote for somebody, a woman, and actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?’”

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Now, I may surprise you by saying this, but questioning Hillary Clinton’s age is appropriate, and doing so isn’t necessarily sexist. (Rush Limbaugh’s quote, however, is a good example of going way over the acceptable line.)

Older men have faced identical scrutiny—in fact, Mrs. Clinton’s husband used similar attacks to win the presidency against George H.W. Bush in 1992 and to win re-election against Bob Dole in 1996. John McCain’s age was also a factor in his campaign, as was his health record (like McCain, Mrs. Clinton recently had a rather serious health scare).

If men’s age often becomes a campaign issue, it seems acceptable to make a woman’s age a campaign issue as well.


But Is It Smart?

Republicans may be able to credibly defend themselves against charges of sexism for making Mrs. Clinton’s age an issue. Nonetheless, I suspect their strategy will backfire, and probably badly. As any smart man should know, few women respond favorably to negative comments about their looks or age. And even though the attacks may be “valid,” attacks on a woman’s age have a different potency than similar attacks on men; I suspect that even many Republican-leaning independent voters will bristle at them. 

There’s a history here. Women resent men acting condescendingly toward a female candidate.



In 1984, for example, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro ripped George H.W. Bush, the incumbent Vice President, for his patronizing tone:



During a New York Senate debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio aggressively approached Ms. Clinton’s lectern. He handed her a paper pledge to refuse any soft money to the campaign—but the move was widely seen as inappropriate and boorish. Mr. Lazio lost the once-close race by double digits.




After winning the Iowa caucus, Senator Barack Obama was widely expected to win the pivotal New Hampshire primary and cruise to an easy nomination. But after taking a gratuitous swipe at Senator Clinton’s likeability in a debate held just days before the vote, female voters handed Ms. Clinton an unexpected victory, helping to extend her campaign for months.


Playing Into Clinton’s Hands

Republicans are playing a dangerous game, and I can’t help thinking that the Clinton people will welcome this attack. As the 2008 example shows, Mrs. Clinton is adept at using public sympathy for her personal political gain.

Plus, she has one convenient fact in her back pocket: She’d be 68-years-old when sworn in for her first term. Conservative hero Ronald Reagan was 69.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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October 2011: The Five Worst Video Media Disasters

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 31, 2011 – 6:23 am

Guy walks into a bar. He sees a birther, a civil rights activist, a country singer, and a cabinet secretary.

Wait a minute. That would never happen. Where else could all of those people be spotted in the same place? Right here, on the month-end disasters list!

Here are the five worst video media disasters of October 2011: 

Hank Williams Jr Committed One of October's Worst Disasters

5. Hillary Clinton Spikes The Football

I know a lot of readers will disagree with me for this choice, but I found U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s on-camera reaction to Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s death distasteful. Was Gaddafi a bad man? You bet. Am I sad that he’s dead? Not particularly. But I do believe that it diminishes us to, in the words of President Obama, “spike the football” by celebrating the death. Let’s do what we have to do, do it professionally, and let the actions speak for themselves.



4. Rick Perry Yuks It Up By Joining The Birthers

Nothing spells funny more than questioning the legitimacy of a duly-elected American president by dredging up discredited rumors about his citizenship status. Gov. Perry quickly walked back his comments, but his comments that it’s “fun” to tweak the President about his nation of birth aren’t helping to resuscitate his under-performing campaign.


3. Lawrence O’Donnell Attacks Herman Cain’s Civil Rights Record

If you’re black and old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights era, should you be attacked if you decided not to march? MSNBC Host Lawrence O’Donnell sure thinks so, and went after GOP candidate Herman Cain for choosing not to actively participate as a Civil Rights activist. Which raises another question: Why hasn’t Mr. O’Donnell asked white candidates about their choices during that era? (Fast forward to the 6:00 mark to see the fireworks.)


2. Herman Cain Blames The Jobless and The Poor 

Herman Cain may have been the victim of bad media behavior this month, but he didn’t help his cause by uttering the sound bite below about the unemployed and the poor. His introduction to the clip, “I don’t have the facts to back this up,” became a fun Internet meme thanks to Jon Stewart. (Another Cain clip, in which he tried to explain his position on abortion, didn’t help either).

1. Hank Williams, Jr. Compares President Obama to Adolf Hitler

Country singer Hank Williams, Jr. was fired up during an appearance on Fox and Friends. When reflecting on a golf match between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, Mr. Williams quipped, “It would be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.” The Fox hosts looked shocked and distanced themselves from his statement, and ESPN promptly dropped him as their Monday Night Football opening act. 


Bonus #1: Sean Penn Says Tea Party Wants to “Lynch” Obama 



Bonus #2: Herman Cain’s Awesome Ad

This is one of the nuttiest political ads I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure whether the best moment is the puff of smoke or the slow-mo smile – but either way, I can’t stop watching it.

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Male Senator Mocks Woman’s Body, Falls Into Gender Trap

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 6, 2011 – 8:02 pm

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) fell into a predictable gender trap earlier today when he slammed the body of a female competitor for his Senate seat.

Here’s the background: In 1982, long before he became a U.S. Senator, Mr. Brown posed nude for Cosmopolitan Magazine. During a Democratic primary debate earlier this week, Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren was asked how she paid for college, given that Mr. Brown stripped to pay his tuition.

“I kept my clothes on,” Ms. Warren quipped, to the delight of the audience. (Video here, about 15:15 in).

Scott Brown posing nude for Cosmo in 1982

During a radio interview earlier today, Sen. Brown responded:

Hosts: “Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren’s comment about how she didn’t take her clothes off?”

Scott Brown, laughing: “Thank God.”


With that broadside, Mr. Brown stepped into a gender minefield that threatens to alienate many female voters. To be sure, Ms. Warren’s swipe was unnecessary and gratuitous – and the question itself was sophomoric. But regardless of whether or not Ms. Warren opened the door to Mr. Brown’s response (she did), the political price will be paid almost solely by Mr. Brown.

The list of male politicians who lost support by mistreating a female competitor is long. Here are three examples:

1. Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama (2008): After winning the Iowa caucus, Senator Barack Obama was widely expected to win the pivotal New Hampshire primary and cruise to an easy nomination. But after taking a gratuitous swipe at Senator Clinton’s likeability in a debate held just days before the vote, female voters handed Ms. Clinton an unexpected victory, helping to extend her campaign for months.   

2. Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio (2000): During a New York Senate debate, Republican candidate Rick Lazio aggressively approached Ms. Clinton’s lectern. He handed her a paper pledge to refuse any soft money to the campaign – but the move was widely seen as inappropriate and boorish. Mr. Lazio lost the once-close race by double digits.

Rick Lazio approaches Hillary Clinton

3. Geraldine Ferraro vs. George H.W. Bush (1984): During the Vice Presidential debate, Vice President Bush took a patronizing tone with Rep. Ferraro when discussing foreign policy. Ms. Ferraro used her razor sharp tongue to let him know she didn’t appreciate it, earning her the applause of the audience and him the enmity of many opinion writers. In the end, it didn’t matter – Mr. Bush was part of a winning ticket that won 49 states.

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Mitt Romney’s Choice

Written by Brad Phillips on March 8, 2011 – 4:51 am

Last year, President Obama signed into law a health care plan that requires citizens to maintain health insurance. In conservative and Tea Party circles, that “individual mandate” – which gives the government the power to fine Americans who don’t purchase insurance – may be the single most unpopular decision Mr. Obama has made as president.

Mr. Obama wasn’t first to pass an individual mandate. In 2006, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney passed a law that required his state’s citizens to purchase health care insurance.

And that presents Mr. Romney with the single biggest challenge of his likely run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

Mitt Romney CSPAN

Mitt Romney's Choice: Defend or Retreat?

Mr. Romney has three choices. He can:

1. Defend Unequivocally: Mr. Romney can defend his state’s 2006 health care bill without making any excuses for the bill.

2. Defend Partially: He can defend pieces of his legislation while attempting to distance himself from the more controversial parts.

3. Admit He Was Wrong: Mr. Romney can admit he was wrong regarding the individual mandate and say he has learned from the mistake. Problematically for Mr. Romney, this option opens him up to the recurring charge that he is a “flip-flopper.”

Mr. Romney’s approach so far has been to partially defend his bill. He’s made the case that his law in Massachusetts is different than President Obama’s, since states have the right to enact a mandate whereas the Federal Government doesn’t. He’s said, “Our experiment wasn’t perfect – some things worked, some didn’t, and some things I’d change.”

But positioning himself in the middle leaves him vulnerable to attacks from both sides. His likely 2012 rivals, including Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee, have denounced “RomneyCare.” And President Obama has offered purposefully unhelpful compliments about Romney’s approach to health care.

So What Should Romney Do?

The 2008 primary bids of John McCain and Hillary Clinton offer some guidance for Mr. Romney.

John McCain 2007

McCain's Immigration Flip-Flop Didn't Prevent Him From Getting the GOP Nomination

In June 2007, John McCain was polling in single digits in Iowa. His candidacy was largely regarded as dead, mostly as a result of his support for immigration reform – which was wildly unpopular among the GOP base. McCain dropped his support for the bill bearing his name, and the immigration issue receded in importance as primary voters went to the polls. He went on to win the Republican nomination.

Hillary Clinton 2007

Hillary Clinton's Steadfast Insistence She Was Right on Iraq Angered Many Democratic Primary Voters

During her failed attempt to win the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton rejected several opportunities to apologize for her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Her position was counter to views of the Democratic base, and the issue remained a top priority for Democratic primary voters. She lost her bid for the Democratic nomination. 


Mr. Romney has two choices, both fraught with risks.

He can continue defending his health care law in the hopes that the issue becomes less important to primary voters. But barring a big international or domestic event, that seems unlikely.

His better choice is to disown his Massachusetts plan, calling it well-intentioned but wrong. Like John McCain, he should do it early in the campaign cycle (now) to take some of the charge out of the issue. Both 2008 examples (McCain and Hillary) suggest that ideological purity – even in the face of a position change – is more important than ideological consistency.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

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