We all know that Hillary Clinton is just lucky, not good. The second-most disliked candidate in history is winning only because her opponent is even more disliked. Any normal Republican would be waltzing to victory. Right?
These are common perceptions, though, and they have force because they are coming from NeverTrumpers as well as Donald Trump supporters. It’s important to challenge this case now, because it will be used to question Clinton’s legitimacy, if she’s elected, before she is even sworn in — and to justify endlessly investigating her and rejecting her nominees thereafter.
What is the case? First, the election is about Trump and not about issues, so Clinton will be able to claim no popular endorsement of her program.
Trump backers go on to argue, as does their candidate, that if Clinton wins it will be because the media or the establishment ganged up on him and refused to hold her to account.
More plausible than that kind of whining are arguments from Trump opponents who want the Republican Party to grasp its fatal error. In their understandable fervor, they insist that any reasonable, decent Republican — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, say, or Ohio Gov. John Kasich — would be trouncing Clinton. People who vote for her really are only voting against him. Clinton merits little credit for a victory.
It sounds plausible, but is it true? The Clinton campaign did worry early on that Rubio would be a formidable opponent: His youth would make her candidacy seem stale, his Cuban heritage would attract Hispanic voters. For his part, Kasich might rally the industrial heartland to the GOP, while his relative inclusiveness would keep suburban moderates in the fold.
Meanwhile, any true Republican would benefit from powerful tailwinds for change: After two terms of a Democratic presidency, the thinking goes, voters would be disposed toward the GOP. That was especially true since two-thirds of the electorate believed the country was on the wrong track — and Republicans were fielding what many of them claimed was their strongest lineup ever of governors, senators and business people.
At some point, though, you have to look at actual performance. Rubio wilted under interrogation by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kasich failed to connect, and not a single candidate in that supposedly awesome lineup managed to do what Clinton did, which is stand up to Trump in debate. They performed miserably in their primary campaigns; why would we assume that Jeb Bush or any of the others would have done better in the general?
Clinton, meanwhile, has shown a political adeptness that few give her credit for because, well, because we just know she is an inept politician.
In fact: She managed to carve out her own identity without repudiating President Obama. She tacked left to beat back a primary challenge without (with one glaring exception, trade) compromising on basic positions. She embraced the possibility of becoming America’s first female president without claiming that as a defining argument. In the debates, she projected competence without coming across as a know-it-all.
None of these was easy, and when the campaign began many people doubted she could pull them off. She has achieved them despite the mood for change — and in the face of venomous opposition not only from Republicans but from the agency-formerly-known-as-the-KGB, too. Even as Russian espionage, in a first in American history, has disclosed the embarrassing inner squabbling of her campaign, Clinton and her team have remained focused and disciplined.
Poll results have followed. More Americans still have an unfavorable view of her than favorable, but by eight percentage points, compared to a minus-20 ranking last spring. Trump meanwhile is at minus-24, according to RealClearPolitics’ poll averages. Polls show that increasingly her supporters are voting for her and not just against Trump.
As for a mandate — well, check out the issues page of her campaign website. I count 41 position papers, though I might have missed a couple, ranging from autism to voting rights, each with a half-dozen bullet points. Should Trump’s lack of interest in debating these count against her? Should her comprehensiveness? Was “hope and change” more of a mandate eight years ago? Clinton has been clear about priorities including immigration reform, taxing the rich and slowing climate change.
The campaigns this year have given voters a pretty good understanding of what the candidates stand for and how each differs from the other. If Clinton wins, it will be after laying out not only her tax returns and campaign bundlers but, over the course of a grueling year and a half, her principles, personality and platform, too. Let’s not pre-shrink her presidency.