Hillary Clinton speaks on Tuesday night after the New Hampshire primary. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
In the days before Bernie Sanders positively obliterated Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, raising the very real specter that she could lose the nomination, I found myself thinking a lot about an exchange she had with voters during a CNN town hall in Derry.
A tired-looking man rose and told Clinton he had terminal colon cancer, and he wanted to know what she would do to help advance the conversation about end-of-life decisions. Clinton seemed visibly moved.
“I don’t have an easy or glib answer for you,” Clinton said candidly, adding that she needed to immerse herself in the ethical and scientific writings.
Not five minutes later, another voter asked Clinton how she would stand up to Republican attacks. She scoffed knowingly and let loose a recitation of how victimized she had been over the years, and how horrible it was to be the target of smear campaigns, and how she was still standing anyway. “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever gone through,” Clinton said.
I thought to myself: Tell that to the guy with colon cancer.
A better politician would have said yes, of course she’d have to deal with some attacks, but that’s life in the arena and she feels lucky to serve. A great politician, like her husband in his prime, would have actually meant it.
But Hillary, truth be told, just isn’t a very gifted politician. And while Sanders focuses relentlessly on the big themes that preoccupy voters, Clinton’s campaign feels like it’s all about her — her résumé, her mettle, her 25 years of suffering through the indignities of public service. “I’m with her” is the slogan for a campaign that seems to signify nothing beyond the joyless accretion of personal loyalties.
Clinton really should beat Sanders in the weeks ahead, but she has only one clear winning strategy here, near as I can tell. She has to stop allowing the campaign to become a referendum on her — and turn it, instead, into a referendum on the guy she wants to replace.
That won’t be Clinton’s instinct, of course. The first thing she’s going to do now, apparently, is the thing the Clintons have generally done when backed against a wall: blame the staff.
Even before New Hampshire buried Clinton in bad news, handing her a 22-point defeat in which she even lost women by double digits, stories were circulating about a shakeup at the Brooklyn headquarters (where, you would think, Clinton’s high command now feels like the Lost Battalion caught behind enemy lines, surrounded by turtleneck-wearing hipsters with “Bernie” signs in their windows).
All of which reminds me of what a scandal-damaged Gary Hart said in 1988 when his chief operative in Iowa, a young law student named Martin O’Malley, informed him that he had registered at zero percent in the caucuses and apologized for letting him down.
“Martin,” Hart said dryly, “this was not an organizational problem.”
Clinton doesn’t have an organizational problem. Oh, sure, there are probably too many informal advisers, too much conflicting advice, no shortage of arrogance and infighting. But that’s nothing new in the Clinton orbit. Only the cast of characters ever changes, and even then not much.
No, Clinton’s problem is the moment and her inability to meet it. What happened in New Hampshire Tuesday wasn’t just some ideological rebellion in both parties, a predictable insider-outsider conflict with less predictable results.
This was the shock wave of 2008 finally rising to the surface of our fractured politics. What Sanders and Donald Trump embody, each in his own strident way, is the disgust that’s been building for the eight years since Lehman Brothers collapsed and took the markets with it — eight years in which the wealthy and their wholly owned political parties recovered fabulously while everyone else stagnated.
President Obama once told a roomful of bankers, in frustration, that he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks. Turns out he was right, and now that he’s stepping aside, the pitchforks are overturning our politics.
Here’s where Clinton finds herself in a real box. Having represented New York and its chief industry, finance, she’s nowhere near a credible populist; the more she tries to sound like Sanders and tout her history as a progressive rebel who once worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, the more she comes off as desperate and expedient.
But if instead Clinton tries to own her real convictions and make the case for a more pragmatic approach, she’s seen as an ideological apostate, unwilling to take on the system. And so her choice is to be either a less genuine candidate than Sanders or a less progressive one — or some days both.
A supremely talented candidate might navigate a way out of this box, but as I said, that’s not Clinton’s superpower. Her team’s strategy for beating back Sanders seems to rely, instead, on demographics. The coming states will feature more black and Latino voters, and Clinton is assuming they won’t be as impressed as voters in New Hampshire were by the rumpled white guy from Vermont.
That’s a pretty shaky assumption, if you ask me.
Remember, Bill Clinton, who once commanded the loyalty of African-American voters like no Democrat since Robert Kennedy, hasn’t appeared on a ballot for 20 years. A lot of younger black and Latino voters don’t even remember the Clinton years, and they’re just as tired of the status quo as their white counterparts.
It won’t be so easy for Hillary to convince minority and younger white voters, who soundly rejected her in New Hampshire this week, that somehow she represents real change and progressive ideals.
But they believe that still about Barack Obama, and this is where Sanders has left her an opening.
Because for the past few weeks, if you’ve been paying attention, Sanders has subtly extended his indictment of his party’s timid status quo right to the door of the White House. I don’t know what Obama said to Sanders when the two of them sat down to talk in January, but whatever it was, it left Sanders in an uncharitable mood.
Since then, he has said (in a string of angry tweets, no less) that real progressives can’t be for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has said real progressives can’t take money from Wall Street. Having apparently appointed himself Political Philosophy Czar, Sanders has said you can’t call yourself both a moderate and a progressive at the same time.
Sanders has brushed aside the health care law that is Obama’s signature achievement (and his most politically costly), calling for a single-payer system and castigating pharmaceutical companies as if “Obamacare” had never existed.
In other words, while he praises Obama in debates, Sanders is saying, unmistakably, that Obama hasn’t been a progressive president and doesn’t embody systemic change. And that’s the cause — rather than her own long résumé — that Clinton, having played a pivotal role in the administration, should champion if she wants to get between Sanders and the voters she needs.
If I were Clinton right now, I’d be asking some pretty simple questions every chance I got in South Carolina and Nevada and Michigan.
Who gets to claim the mantle of change — the nation’s first black president, who overturned the old order on health care and Wall Street regulation and Cuba and Iran, or a senator who’s voted with the gun industry? How seriously can you take a candidate who doesn’t think Obama represents a real departure from the status quo?
A vote for Clinton, at this point, has to be a vote of validation for Obama’s legacy, too.
It’s not a perfect strategy. You might point out that Obama himself once derided Clinton, eons ago, as shifty and calculating. You might point out, as I have, that elections are supposed to be about the future and not the past.
But here’s the reality: To this point, Clinton has run a campaign that’s all about her bona fides, and nobody’s swooning. If she’s still defending her Wall Street speeches and whining about the vast right-wing conspiracy a few weeks from now, the nomination could very well slip away from her, again.
Clinton’s best move now is to lash herself tightly to the man who once beat her and hope it’s enough to ride out the wave.