“The best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life.” So said Bill Clinton in making the case for his wife at the Democratic National Convention. Considering that Bernie Sanders ran as the author of a political revolution and Donald Trump as the man who would “kick over the table” (to quote Newt Gingrich) in Washington, “change-maker” does not exactly make the heart race.
Which is the fundamental problem with the Clinton campaign. What precisely is it about? Why is she running in the first place?
Like most dynastic candidates (most famously Ted Kennedy in 1979), she really doesn’t know. She seeks the office because, well, it’s the next – the final – step on the ladder.
Her campaign’s premise is that we’re doing OK but we can do better. There are holes to patch in the nanny-state safety net. She’s the one to do it.
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It amounts to Sanders lite. Or the short-lived Bush slogan: “Jeb can fix it.” We know where that went.
The one man who could have given the pudding a theme, who could have created a plausible Hillaryism was Bill Clinton. Rather than do that – the way in Cleveland Gingrich shaped Trump’s various barstool eruptions into a semi-coherent program of national populism – Bill gave a long chronological account of a passionate liberal’s social activism. It was an attempt, I suppose, to humanize her.
Well, yes. Perhaps, after all, somewhere in there is a real person. But what a waste of Bill’s talents. It wasn’t exactly Clint Eastwood speaking to an empty chair, but at the end you had to ask: Is that all there is?
He grandly concluded with this: “The reason you should elect her is that in the greatest country on earth we have always been about tomorrow.” Is there a rhetorical device more banal?
Trump’s acceptance speech was roundly criticized for offering a dark, dystopian vision of America. For all of its exaggeration, however, it reflected well the view from Fishtown, the fictional white working-class town created statistically by social scientist Charles Murray in his 2012 study “Coming Apart.” It chronicled the economic, social and spiritual disintegration of those left behind by globalization and economic transformation. Trump’s capture of the resultant feelings of anxiety and abandonment explains why he enjoys an astonishing 39-point advantage over Clinton among whites without a college degree.
His solution is to beat up on foreigners for “stealing” our jobs. But while trade is a factor in the loss of manufacturing jobs, even more important, by a large margin, is the emergence of an information economy in which education, knowledge and various kinds of literacy are the coin of the realm. For all the factory jobs lost to Third World competitors, far more are lost to robots.
Hard to run against higher productivity. Easier to run against cunning foreigners.
In either case, Clinton has found no counter. If she has a theme, it’s about expanding opportunity, shattering ceilings. But the universe of discriminated-against minorities – so vast 50 years ago – is rapidly shrinking. When the burning civil rights issue of the day is bathroom choice for the transgendered, a flummoxed Fishtown understandably asks, “What about us?” Telling coal miners she was going to close their mines and kill their jobs only reinforced white working-class alienation from Clinton.
As for the chaos abroad, the Democrats are in see-no-evil denial. The first night in Philadelphia, there were 61 speeches. Not one mentioned the Islamic State or even terrorism. Later references were few, far between and highly defensive. After all, what can the Democrats say? Clinton’s calling card is experience. Yet as secretary of state she left a trail of policy failures from Libya to Syria, from the Russian reset to the Iraqi withdrawal to the rise of the Islamic State.
Clinton had a strong second half of the convention as the Sanders revolt faded and as President Obama endorsed her with one of the finer speeches of his career. Yet Trump’s convention bounce of up to 10 points has given him a slight lead in the polls. She badly needs one of her own.
She still enjoys the Democrats’ built-in Electoral College advantage. But she remains highly vulnerable to both outside events and internal revelations. Another major terror attack, another email drop – and everything changes.
In this crazy election year, there are no straight-line projections. As Clinton leaves Philadelphia, her lifelong drive for the ultimate prize is perilously close to a coin flip.
The Washington Post Writers Group