Debating Hillary

Donald Trump may attract more viewers, but the trajectory of the Hillary Clinton campaign is – by far – the most interesting storyline of this campaign.  Hillary Clinton began the 2016 campaign as she did in 2008: A prohibitive favorite with a vast array of organizational and financial resources. The driving narrative of her campaigns has been that she is an inevitable nominee and an electable candidate. When that wears thin, she finds herself on uncertain ground, unsure of who she is as a candidate, or why her campaign matters.

Her difficulty in connecting with voters is often discussed as a matter of trust, but it is really a question of authenticity. We didn’t trust Bill Clinton but we knew who he was and we liked him despite (or because of?) his faults. Her movement to the left this election cycle (relatively to 2008) is symptomatic, her flip on the Trans-Pacific Partnership a case-in-point. The search for what she need to be to get the position she wants.

Bernie Sanders suffers no such problems. He is authentic, challenging the status quo with a Quixotic campaign. He is likable even if we disagree with his positions because he is genuine. It is nearly impossible to imagine him winning the Democratic nomination, but there is no doubt that he has changed the course of the campaign. Voters, he said, will “contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary.”

The challenge for Hillary Clinton is to use Bernie Sanders as a foil for demonstrating her own authenticity as a person and a candidate and to establish a narrative for her campaign separate from electability and inevitability.


You can acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is smart and talented while also conceding that she is not a very good candidate. While some of her struggles undoubtedly reflect broader culturally engrained gender stereotypes, her most pronounced flaw as a candidate is that she lacks charm. The more she campaigns the fewer people support her.

I say this, by the way, not as a critique but as a fan.  Clinton politics – pragmatic in its aims, fiscally responsible, and moderate in its approach – has great appeal. In another era, Hillary Clinton was and would have remained a liberal “Rockefeller” Republican, committed to liberal social policies and responsible governance.  Her pragmatic moderate politics is no small part of her problem. The Democratic left has never trusted her or, for that matter, embraced the Clinton legacy. Disappointed by the moderation of Presidents Clinton and Obama, they continue to pine for a “true” liberal.  Hillary Clinton is not that candidate.

This is her second time down the road from inevitable juggernaut to vulnerability to crisis mode and, perhaps, defeat.  The problem she confronts is that – as in 2008 – the most powerful arguments for her campaign are electability and inevitability. When that veneer is stripped clean – when she is exposed as electorally vulnerable – her support crumbles.  The comparison to 2008 is instructive. In September 2007, Clinton led President Barack Obama by 21 points (46 to 25). His victory in Iowa gave Democrats the chance to reconsider her candidacy and her inevitability. The decline in her support from over 60 percent to under 50 and the rise in her unfavorable numbers this early in the campaign are causes for alarm.

Her current challenger – Bernie Sanders – is less formidable. Charlie Cook’s assessment of Sanders is spot on: “Has any mem­ber of Con­gress dur­ing the past 23 years been less con­sequen­tial, less ef­fect­ive, and taken less ser­i­ously than Sanders? Is there any Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or less able to win a na­tion­wide gen­er­al elec­tion?” Though one might recall that at the start of 2008, Senator Barack Obama was inexperienced and not well known.

Her current challenge -overcoming her own weaknesses as a candidate while convincing the Democratic faithful that she has more to offer than electability – remains. Worse, as she looks less and less inevitable, the challenge of making a case for her candidacy grows.

Despicable Me: Hillary Clinton’s Challenge Remains