Even with all the drama of the 2016 Republican contest for the presidential nomination, it is impossible not to notice the slow-motion train wreck that is the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The campaign is beset by four woes that don’t seem to have any quick remedy. The only way forward for the Democratic front-runner is to hunker down, slog it out and win ugly. Since “malaise” is an overused word in politics, I’ll categorize Clinton’s campaign as “desultory” – or, “lacking a plan or enthusiasm.”
Clinton’s four problems are obvious: Her performance as a candidate, her opponent’s viability, a growing scandal that could lead to the indictment of the former first lady and possibly a few of her closest aides, and the rejection of her legitimacy as a feminist leader.
First, her performance as a candidate is weak and not getting stronger. Nothing about her is fresh, exciting or appealing. President Obama called it early — she just doesn’t have that “new-car smell.” Clinton’s style is stuck in the ’80s, when “message discipline” was all about delivering talking points no matter what. Sticking to the script was considered artful. Repeating yourself and having a high word count but low content was considered clever. Those days are over. Either Clinton doesn’t know that or she can’t change her style. To watch her on TV can be toe-curling. To listen to her rehearsed lines, and, recently, to hear her force Obama’s name into her answers is so contrived it lends itself to parody for SNL.
Clinton’s second problem is the viability of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Among the things I have gotten wrong so far in the 2016 cycle is the fact that Sanders has people who are affirmatively supporting him. I thought he would be the gadfly candidate — the anti-Clinton candidate and nothing more. Instead, he is building a legitimate following. It not only says something about the Democratic Party’s move to the left, but it also says something about him as a candidate that I did not anticipate. He seems to be getting better as a candidate, while Clinton seems to have plateaued. The emotional appeal of Sanders is vividly entrenched within the Democratic Party and is forcing Clinton to limp to the left, which will make it harder for her during the general election if she is the Democrats’ eventual nominee. The excitement surrounding Sanders is only making Clinton look even more stale.
Third, Clinton’s email scandal has receded in the news, but it’s growing more dangerous every day. It is an iceberg that cannot be avoided. As I always say, in politics, being innocent is only an advantage, and likewise, being guilty is only a disadvantage. Neither is necessarily determinative. But it appears that Clinton mishandled classified information, and that she didn’t do it alone. Others on her staff appear to have been part of a regular practice of sending now-classified information over Clinton’s secret server located at her home in New York. Legal experts around town that I have spoken to are matter-of-fact about this prima facie case. There is no question among the experts I talked to about whether she is guilty; there is only a question of whether the Justice Department will indict, slow-walk the case or stiff-arm the FBI. And you routinely hear that the frustrated FBI is not going to be willing to go quietly in the face of the clear evidence it has collected.
And finally, if Donald Trump has done one good thing for the American body politic, it is how he has stepped on Clinton’s hypocritical, sanctimonious effort to present herself as a feminist icon. While other Republicans are mostly intimidated about bringing up her role in enabling Bill Clinton’s harassment of women and destroying his victims, Trump doesn’t play along, and the inconvenient truth of what he says about her actions and hypocrisy has hobbled her effort to create a feminist wave of support. Some of the usual suspects on the left mumble about her leadership on women’s issues, but younger voters aren’t buying it.
I’ve gone from thinking Clinton would be invincible in November to being worried that she might not be the Democratic nominee. I think her odds of winning the nomination are still better than 50-50, but that’s down from 70-30 just a few months ago. The trend lines are not good, and I’m not sure her abilities as a candidate or the strength of her campaign can win it. Clinton is nearing the point where she needs more than just good execution; she needs a lucky break.