WASHINGTON – There was something in the air before Hillary Clinton addressed Georgetown University students Wednesday, but it definitely wasn’t a new-car smell.
It was a faint but unmistakable whiff of indifference.
When the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination spoke in the same place a year ago, the room was reportedly packed. When she spoke in October, Gaston Hall again “was filled to capacity,” the campus newspaper reported; some students lined up overnight and others were turned away.
But when it was time for Clinton’s appearance to begin Wednesday morning, half of the 700 seats in the place were empty. After a half-hour “weather delay,” diplomats and VIPs filled a few more chairs, but more than 300 remained vacant when the former secretary of state and first lady walked in wearing a robin’s-egg-blue jacket and her signature pants.
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Roughly half a dozen people rose to applaud, and for a terrifying moment it appeared they might be the only ones standing. But slowly, lazily, most of the others struggled to their feet.
Maybe it was just overexposure. Clinton began by joking that she’d been to Georgetown more in the last couple of years than her husband, who is an alumnus. This got a polite chuckle. A spokeswoman for the university said that this is the last week of classes, so students may be busy preparing for final exams.
But it has to be a worrisome sign for Clintonistas as they prepare to launch her 2016 juggernaut. President Barack Obama, talking to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month about Clinton’s efforts to distance herself from the unpopular president, said “the American people, you know, they’re going to want that new-car smell.” Doug Schoen, whose polling firm worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and who now is a Fox News regular, contributed his view that his former client lacks that particular scent.
The students who did show up Wednesday did not seem dazzled. They gave another polite chuckle for her reference to Harvard as “that small university up in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” but they were dead quiet during most of her speech. A few took photos with their phones; others fiddled with their hair. Several began trickling out before the 40-minute appearance was over. The main applause line Clinton generated was her reference to another woman joining her on the stage, Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, who, Clinton said, “belongs to a small but fierce club of women who are proving they can defend their countries as well as any man.”
Those who bothered to listen could have heard the rationale for Clinton’s candidacy as she spoke about the need for women to play a greater role around the world in war-fighting and diplomacy. “We know when women contribute in making and keeping peace, entire societies enjoy better outcomes,” she said. “Women leaders, it has been found, are good at building coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and speaking up for other marginalized groups. … They act more as mediators to help foster compromise and to try to organize, to create the changes they seek.”
This is a smart way for Clinton to position herself. Last time, she largely avoided campaigning on her potential to be the first female president, until her famous “glass ceiling” concession speech. The bad news is she’s now tied to Obama’s foreign policy at a time when the world seems to be falling apart.
She has tried, haltingly, to draw distinctions between her hawkish views and Obama’s dovish ways. But there was nothing new-car in Wednesday’s appearance, where Clinton gave a brief exposition on her “smart power” theme and often lapsed into the bureaucratic and the banal.
“I’m a big believer in trying to make decisions based on evidence wherever possible,” she reported. She also spoke, numbingly, of her “commitment to launch a series of practical discussions on the implementation of national action plans,” and of her effort “to call for the institution of a representative to the secretary-general to begin at the U.N. level to try to implement what were the sentiments and the aspirations behind these actions.”
There was supposed to have been a Q&A following Clinton’s remarks, but the moderator, former Clinton adviser Melanne Verveer, said there was no time for that and instead read Clinton a single question about Syria and Ukraine. Clinton ventured her opinions that Ukraine will have to “rebuild its military forces” and that “Syria is now a multi-sided conflict.”
The ride and handling were stable. The acceleration and braking were adequate. But this car was not new.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.