It is no revelation that Hillary Clinton is disconnected from voters. Her difficulty in overcoming this public perception is linked to the myriad reasons why the American electorate distrusts Clinton: the e-mail scandal, the allegations of foreign governments’ contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and her amiable relations with Wall Street.
Clinton has been trying to change the popular perception that she is far removed from the typical, middle-class American. Since she announced her candidacy this April, she has emphasized her middle-class upbringing in Chicago and in suburban Illinois as well as her relationship with her working-class mother. Clinton identifies herself first and foremost as a grandmother, a role that fits with her record of advocacy for families and for children.
In her Saturday Night Live appearance, Clinton made an effort to address the perception issue. In the sketch, Clinton plays a bartender named Val serving Kate McKinnon, the SNL regular cast member currently performing as Clinton for the 2016 presidential cycle. During the brief interaction between McKinnon’s Clinton and Clinton’s Val, the two have a frank discussion about the struggles of a presidential run.
From the moment of their introduction, Val identifies Clinton as a politician. McKinnon invokes the familial angle of Clinton’s campaign and mentions her duties as a human to the planet—all in a display designed to show how Clinton’s ambition results in the belief that she merely seeks greater political power.
The conversation moves on to discuss Clinton’s delayed announcement of her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Following bitter criticism of her refusal to take a stance, Clinton finally came out against the controversial project last month.
Clinton also has trouble appealing to young voters: she has lost support among students to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the overwhelming favorite on college campuses. The sketch shed light on this demographic problem, as Val describes Clinton as someone who gives “off such a young, cool vibe”. Later in the sketch, the two “tap [their] fists in friendship”, an allusion to the collegiate fist bump.
The pair discuss gay marriage, yet another issue Clinton hesitated to take a position. Another SNL regular cast member, Taran Killam, thanks McKinnon’s Clinton for her support of gay marriage. After Killam leaves the scene, Clinton and McKinnon admit Clinton could have supported gay marriage sooner, a frequent criticism among liberals.
Clinton then mocks Donald Trump, the current Republican frontrunner, with a gruff impression of his combative persona. The impression is well-received, and McKinnon follows with an assertion that Trump must win the Republican primaries so that Clinton can more easily secure what has been considered an inevitable victory in the general election.
Clinton’s character suggests that McKinnon’s Clinton take a vacation, a recommendation the latter fails to understand: this is another reference to Clinton’s notorious relentlessness on the campaign trail. Immediately following this exchange, Bill Clinton, portrayed by former regular SNL cast member Darrell Hammond, appears and is frightened to see two Hillary Clintons. He leaves the scene.
The conversation ends with McKinnon’s Clinton telling Clinton’s character that she is “really easy to talk to,” a final mention of the perception problem Clinton has among voters. Clinton’s character jokes that the comment is the first she has heard of its kind. McKinnon’s Clinton says to Clinton’s character that she should be president, and Clinton readily agrees, much to the amusement of the studio audience.
McKinnon and Clinton end with an off-key, light-hearted rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.” Clinton flashes a genuine smile and disappears, leaving McKinnon alone to come to terms with what she initially believes was just a hallucination her stress drinking had induced.
When high-profile politicians appear on late-night television, they treat it as an opportunity to identify with a major audience without the urgent rhetoric of policy and partisanship required in rallies and other campaign events. Clinton acknowledged this and used her Saturday Night Live appearance to admit to her long-term challenges. More importantly, Clinton was able to present herself as what she called “an ordinary citizen” in an environment otherwise alien to her character and to her ambition.
The role of bartender is oddly fitting for a presidential candidate, particularly for Clinton. Candidates engage in grassroots campaigning so that they can relate to people who will likely vote for them. People vote for candidates they like and trust. In a political culture where a presidential run means portraying oneself as someone people can have a beer with, Val is the ideal character for Clinton, whose primary problem in the race is appearing untrustworthy.
Clinton showed in the sketch that she can be that person. Simply being featured on SNL may not be enough for Clinton to gain back the people’s trust, but she demonstrated that she is someone who will talk with and listen to constituents, and she showed off her sense of humor. Clinton’s elite position within the American political system separates her from most Americans, and so presenting her as a working-class woman closes that gap—if only for a few moments—and encourages the public to be sympathetic to her efforts.
The office of the president is one of great dignity, and it deserves an individual whom Americans trust to uphold its stature. A single late-night comedy appearance cannot measure Clinton’s success in proving that she is this individual, though it is a step in the right direction. Clinton will need to evaluate public opinion closely, and she must respond to it appropriately in order to remain a viable candidate. Limiting her public connections with the wealthy and privileged, whether donors or Wall Street bankers, will do more good for her campaign than a one-off cameo.
Politics, especially campaigning, is about connections. Clinton needs to connect not only to Washington, but also to the American people. Her SNL appearance seems to be an attempt to do just that.
The image featured in this article was taken from Penn State's flickr page. The original image can be found here.