As the Democratic National Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton faces many widely reported challenges. She is generally not trusted, and the majority of Americans tend to repeat what has now become a cliche invented by President Obama: Clinton just doesn’t have that new-car smell. I continue to believe Clinton and Donald Trump are propping each other up. They are both so unpopular that the race for the presidency is staying close, even as one consistently acts erratically and the other seems to have a virtual indictment despite not being actually indicted by the FBI. But in addition to the current macro political environment, Clinton faces three specific challenges that are unique to her and to this era in modern politics.
First, Clinton must sound the alarm about national security without throwing Obama under the bus, admitting errors on her part while she was secretary of state or placing blame on the core Obama foreign policy team. If Clinton takes it upon herself to explain why she believes things really aren’t that bad and how she and Obama have made America safe, she runs the risk of appearing out of touch with the anxiety many Americans feel. I was a little surprised at the Democrats’ rehearsed reaction after last week’s Republican National Convention. In unison, they talked about how frightening and dark the rhetoric was. I wonder if the Democrats really don’t sense the need to sound the alarm vs. trying to convince people that things are better than they seem. Clinton has to impress upon people the fact that her foreign policy and national security positions will not be more of the same. This is particularly hard because it probably would be more of the same — as stated above, she was a critical architect of Obama’s national security policies. And according to the latest Economist/YouGov poll, only 42 percent of people approve of how Obama is handling terrorism. On almost every issue, but none more so than foreign policy and national security, Clinton is running as the incumbent. And no one thinks the incumbent deserves four more years when it comes to foreign policy.
Second, Clinton has to balance the inconsistency and misguided assertions of the Black Lives Matter movement with being sufficiently credible as someone who will provide law and order and be supportive of cops on the streets. By the looks of the convention speakers announced so far, Clinton and her team seem to be going all in with the Black Lives Matter crowd. This says something about Clinton’s inability to move to the center. She is still so weak among her natural liberal constituency that she can’t dare try to reach out to middle-class whites.
Third — and most critically — Clinton has to say how she will grow the economy. And she has to do so while taking the position that Obama has been successful with economic issues. Again, she has to try to convince Americans that they are mistaken about the state of their personal financial prospects and just don’t realize how good they have it. As I always say, in politics, a bumper sticker beats an essay. Relying on a torturous explanation of how good the economy is when people see and feel something different from what a candidate is saying puts Clinton in a untenable position. She has to be able to acknowledge that the economic recovery hasn’t been strong enough and that more of the same is undesirable. Again, if she doesn’t get this balance right, she will look out of touch and push people toward Trump, who theoretically could hold himself out as a credible businessman, job creator and one-man economic engine.
With all these challenges, Clinton’s greatest asset in this campaign is Trump. The latest CNN poll notwithstanding, where Trump has a remarkable five-point lead in a four-way match-up, Clinton could benefit from Trump’s inability to reach out to a broader audience and appear credible, reassuring and sufficiently knowledgeable to gain the benefit of the doubt and build a winning coalition. It’s almost always a mistake when your campaign plan calls for your opponent to hand you a victory. In this election cycle, Clinton’s challenges may actually be harder to overcome than Trump’s just by virtue of the fact that she carries the burden of incumbency.