It’s time to wait and see how the New Hampshire primary develops for the Republicans, but there is near certainty that Hillary Clinton will lose tomorrow’s Democratic primary. I concede that Clinton is still the favorite, but her campaign needs to be carefully managed now that she is in a competitive race with Bernie Sanders and vulnerable to a calamity. So what should Clinton do? Granted, I’m a Republican, but from my perspective, Clinton doesn’t have many options and the way forward is pretty obvious. What she needs to do is deal with the circumstances of the race as they really are, not as she wants them to be.
First, Clinton should do more — not less, more — live TV. Her net performance is pretty good during the debates and in interviews; she just has to do a better job of preparing for the tough questions. Clinton’s campaign is plagued by two big, corrosive questions. One, she needs to address the issue of her relationship with big banks and Wall Street. She and her family — and I say family because even Chelsea Clinton worked on Wall Street for a while, and her husband is a Goldman Sachs alumnus and currently runs a hedge fund — have been especially close to Wall Street, and it is painful to watch Hillary Clinton try to suggest otherwise. Perhaps Clinton could actually learn something from how Donald Trump unabashedly embraces his experiences. Rather than pretend she doesn’t know the big players on Wall Street, Clinton should use her familiarity with the financial services industry to suggest she knows how to corral them without killing them. Clinton should say, a la Trump, that “I know these people,” “Sure, I took their money” and “I know what they care about and how to make them get in line.” Clinton should argue that Sanders has no idea what the financial industry does or what its pressure points are, but as a former senator from New York, she can easily pinpoint its vulnerabilities. Clinton should look those who question her Wall Street ties straight in the eye and bluff them into silence.
Clinton’s second problem is the legal trouble she is in over her private email server and alleged mishandling of classified information. Lee Atwater used to say: When all else fails, deny the obvious. It may produce a moment of confusion where you’ll catch a break. I think that’s where the Clinton Empire is on this issue at the moment, and it needs to keep it up — not that it needs advice from anyone about how to maintain a lie. Despite what facts emerge, the Clintons have to maintain that there is no “there” there, that nothing bad happened, there was no mishandling of classified information, having a private server is a-okay and others in government have done it, too. If they can stick to their story, they’ll not only limit reporters’ ability to find new ways to move the story, but they’ll also be sending a signal to their collaborators in the media, their apologists in the commentariat and their protectors at the State Department. Obviously, there are those in government today who hope Clinton will win in 2016 just because they might be able to hang onto their positions. Certainly not everyone in the federal government would be part of a coverup to protect Clinton, but plenty of Clinton sympathizers would do what they could to hide any potential malfeasance. But they need to know what the story is, and the only way Clinton can communicate en masse with the sleeper cells of Clinton supporters is via the media.
Next, Clinton needs to focus her message on something she really knows well and feels comfortable talking about. For her campaign, message discipline is at a premium right now because she can’t afford to make any more mistakes. If I were advising Clinton, I would say she needs to talk about women, infants and children; health care and education. According to today’s polls, these are not the most pressing issues, but they are areas where Clinton can seem credible and knowledgeable and would be less inclined to make a mistake. She might even be able to conjure some semi-authentic enthusiasm that might reassure her supporters.
And, while Clinton works to stay on message, she also needs to rein in her surrogates, starting with Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem. Bill Clinton went on the attack against Sanders in New Hampshire, calling Sanders supporters “profane” and “sexist” and, incredibly, suggesting that Sanders is actually close to Wall Street because he voted in favor of something called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. It’s pitiful. Bill Clinton actually suggested that Sanders was somehow an ally of Wall Street because he supported that obscure bill, which President Bill Clinton signed into law. Really? That’s the best they have? Do they think that argument will move votes or stir up any passion? Has Bill Clinton lost his touch?
Then, both Albright and Steinem criticized female Sanders supporters. Former secretary of state Albright wagged her finger, suggesting that women who don’t support Hillary Clinton are hellbound for not falling in line. Steinem said that any female voters who are supporting Sanders are just doing it to meet “boys.” This is really lame. The Clinton machine can do better.
Last, although Hillary Clinton is holding events with female Democratic senators (with the exception of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts) who have formed something of a support group for her candidacy, it’s not enough. Clinton’s Senate supporters need to put out the message that Sanders is not equipped to be president. Period. As my business partner, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, would say, “They need to turn mama’s picture to the wall” and start punching Sanders where it really hurts. The most credible people to deliver those blows are other sitting senators. It may not have been in the original Clinton campaign plan to get rough, so it’s likely the campaign didn’t bother grooming any attack dogs to really go after Sanders. Well, it needs them now.
At this point, I’m not sure where the Democratic race really stands. I’m not convinced the status quo will ensure Clinton is the eventual Democratic nominee. Rather than tinkering with her campaign’s organization chart, Clinton needs to batten down the hatches, get her team in fighting shape and prepare for a long, hard battle ahead.