Hillary Clinton is the Great Underestimator. Eight years ago, she underestimated Barack Obama and now she has underestimated Bernie Sanders. We know this not only from what happened in 2008 and what is happening now but from the pitiful confessions of her campaign staff who admit they never saw Sanders coming. That’s understandable. It’s not so much that Sanders was underestimated, it’s that Clinton is overestimated.
I come at this column as a Clinton supporter. I like her personally and have enormous respect for her intelligence. Mostly, though, she’s the classic one-eyed person in the land of the blind: Who else is there? Pray, not Bernie Sanders. If he played Capt. Renault in “Casablanca,” he would have said, “Break up the big banks” instead of “Round up the usual suspects.” To him, it’s the same thing.
Clinton has her own tic. She has plans. She has a one-point plan and a two-point plan and, most often, a three-point plan. A three-pointer is always best since it suggests a beginning, a middle and an end. It mimics the three-act structure of movies and plays that, for some reason, we find so satisfying. Clinton has a three-acter regarding the Islamic State that, as I understand it, is about what is already being done. This is the Obama approach in PowerPoint.
At Sunday night’s debate, Clinton was somewhat less than candid about her foreign policy differences with her former boss. (As secretary of state, she favored a more muscular policy.) But what matters more to her political chances is this business of hiding behind plans. She talks like a chief of staff, which in a sense she was to her husband, and not as the policymaker herself. The word “plan” pedantically distances her from her audience. It’s a buffer.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn about her plans. I sort of already know what they are anyway. After being first lady, senator from New York, secretary of state and, going all the way back, the 1969 commencement speaker at Wellesley College, she can’t possibly have any surprises up her sleeve. When it comes to policies and plans, she is a known commodity. The rest of her is encased in an emotional burka.
At the end of the debate, she had a chance to hit one out of the park. She, Sanders and Martin O’Malley were asked by one of the moderators, NBC’s Lester Holt, whether there was “anything that you really wanted to say tonight that you haven’t gotten a chance to say.” With that, Clinton . . . bunted:
“Well, Lester, I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and I think every single American should be outraged. We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care.”
She could have gone further. She could have mentioned how some children are already beyond hope. Their IQs have dropped. They are lethargic. They have lead poisoning. An ugly piece of the Third World was brought to Michigan under a governor who had hitherto boasted how his business experience made him better than your ordinary politician. She should have talked about the kids — the poor kids whose lives have been ruined so that taxes did not have to be raised.
But Clinton did not mention the kids. She did not even go to Flint.
“So I sent my top campaign aide down there to talk to the mayor of Flint to see what I could do to help,” she said. “I issued a statement about what we needed to do and then I went on a TV show and I said it was outrageous that the governor hadn’t acted. And within two hours, he had.”
(1) Sent an aide. (2) Issued a statement. (3) Went on TV.
Sanders at that point chimed in, adding that he had called on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to resign.
Clinton’s shortcomings as a candidate amount to a national crisis. As things now stand, the Republican nominee could be either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. If she can’t handle Sanders, she probably can’t handle either of them. She needs to get a different three-point plan. (1) Say what’s on your mind. (2) Get angry. (3) Never say the word “plan” again.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.