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The Democrats' not-so-secret closing argument: Hillary Clinton is Leslie Knope

They’re trying to rebrand their candidate just as Parks and Recreation rebranded its main character.

Democratic National Convention: Day Three
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton embrace after his speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

After the first season of Parks and Recreation, series co-creator Michael Schur and his writers room had a problem. They felt like much of their show had come together surprisingly quickly — in just six episodes, no less — but it was clear from both critical and viewer response that their main character, Leslie Knope, wasn’t quite connecting, even as she was played by the enormously gifted and lovable Amy Poehler.

So Schur and his writers pivoted, almost immediately. Their effects were evident in the second season premiere. Here he is explaining that pivot to Alan Sepinwall in September 2009:

We got some feedback that Leslie came across as "ditzy" sometimes — that surprised us, because we didn’t intend that at all. I think what the writers intended as "takes her job too seriously" read to some people as "oblivious." So we corrected a little for that this year in the scripts. … We don’t want people to feel like Leslie is on an island, in terms of her worldview. There are some nice moments in the first few episodes of this season where we see the other characters being more supportive of her.

The writers’ bid was that if the other characters were on Leslie’s side, then viewers would be, too. It was that her can-do optimism, which could seem off-putting when nobody else was on her side (as they hadn’t been in season one), could be moving if she impressed even characters like Ron Swanson, her libertarian political opposite.

Knope was largely read as a Hillary Clinton-esque character when the series debuted (as I wrote about here). Leslie even decorated her office with a photo of Clinton. And now, in 2016, around 18 months after Parks left the air, the Democratic Party is hoping it can make the exact same pivot Schur and his writers did.

The Republicans sold Clinton as season one Leslie. Can Democrats make their candidate season two Leslie?

The Republican National Convention largely framed itself not as a pro-Donald Trump convention but as an anti-Hillary Clinton convention. Strategically, it wasn’t a bad idea. Trump might have the lowest favorability ratings of any presidential candidate in history — but Clinton wasn’t that far behind him.

And it worked in the short term. As 538’s Harry Enten points out, Clinton’s negatives were largely indistinguishable from Trump’s in the post-convention polls that mostly gave Trump the lead in the presidential race. Don’t build up, this strategy suggested. Instead, drag down, and hope to pull the other party into the mudslinging game.

The Clinton the Republicans described was rather like season one Leslie Knope, too. She was preening and privileged, removed from the experience of normal people. She was too used to power and money to understand anyone but Washington insiders. She was so focused on her own career that she couldn't hear the cries of those who were hurting.

This is also how Leslie was often seen. In the Sepinwall interview, Schur points to a season one Parks episode, where Leslie finds herself attacked by the citizens of her town when she goes out canvassing, because she can’t understand their problems, as a misstep.

So the Democratic convention did exactly what Parks did — and even suggested Clinton had a bit of Knope in her. She worked so hard she impressed political opponents. She fought for what she believed in tirelessly. She never quit, even when things seemed dire.

Those who attack her, then, are only playing into the Knope-like Clinton Democrats tried to build up — a tireless striver who suffers the slings and arrows of criticism to come out the other side, stronger.

A Leslie Knope-ish Clinton was at the center of President Obama’s speech

Parks and Recreation
Leslie (Amy Poehler) and her husband, Ben (Adam Scott), enjoy some pie together.

Or look to President Obama, who quoted a famous Teddy Roosevelt summation about the "man in the arena," a quote that Ron may as well have said of Leslie late in the show’s run, when the two had a deeply affectionate camaraderie, despite their political differences.

Or, hell, let Leslie Knope herself say it in so many words:

That's why people respect Hillary Clinton so much. 'Cause nobody takes a punch like her. She's the strongest, smartest punching bag in the world.

Will this rebranding work? It’s hard to say. At times, the DNC has felt like an attempt to shield Clinton from attacks from all angles. She’s defended as a progressive champion here, and as someone hawkish against global terror there. She can occasionally feel like a large collection of different selves, who exist alongside each other, rather than someone with a cohesive central message.

But the other big bet the Democrats have made is that Clinton’s complication, her 40 years of public service, her Leslie Knope-ish qualities are her cohesive, central message. Their hope is that by surrounding her with people you know and like, then having them say, "Boy, that Hillary Clinton sure is great!" they can get those who are on the fence about her to feel similarly.

After all, it worked for Leslie Knope. Why not take a shot on seeing if it will work for the woman whose image literally looked over Leslie’s shoulder all those years on TV?