How Hillary Could Win the Election—and Lose the Country– Todd S. Purdum

By Ikenga Chronicles May 1, 2016

How Hillary Could Win the Election—and Lose the Country– Todd S. Purdum

Hillary Clinton’s all-but-insurmountable delegate lead in the Democratic race, and her strong numbers against any probable Republican opponent in the fall, now pose a paradox: She might win the presidency but lose the country.

The reason is that Clinton lacks a big, new animating idea in a year when voters in both parties are so discontented they have embraced some pretty bad ones. Like them or loathe them, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’s messages are crystal clear and call for dramatic change, while Clinton’s remains spread softly all over the map. And her agenda promises less change than continuation—of the centrist Democratic Party policies that her husband pursued and which Barack Obama has largely followed. It’s no surprise that one of Clinton’s biggest campaign themes is to praise both her predecessor Democratic presidents—the one she married and the one she went to work for—effusively.

In her New York primary victory speech last week, Clinton delivered a laundry list worthy of a State of the Union address, declaring her support for “civil rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and rights for people with disabilities,” and pledging to fight for “places that have been left out and left behind, from inner cities to coal country to Indian country.”
The twist is that Clinton almost certainly has the best chance in the field to deliver such a speech as president, yet she might still face a hellish four or eight years in office without a crisper organizing theme that pledges fundamental change, because so many voters in the opposition party—and her own—will be nursing bitter disappointments from Day One. She’s already in danger of pre-alienating the Democratic base, with many Sanders supporters vowing never to support her.
Some agenda items of a second Clinton presidency would be obvious enough. Dogged preservation of Obama’s legacy (and her husband’s), including health care reform. Continuance of the Democrats’ agenda on immigration, including by executive actions where possible. Support for early childhood programs, affordable child care and debt-free college education. Pragmatically hawkish foreign policy around the world.
But such initiatives seem out of scale with the size of the problems the country faces, and the depth of the anger and distress that is driving the movements behind Sanders on the left and Trump on the right. Clinton contends that Trump’s and Sanders’ various protectionist prescriptions for rescuing the middle class range from unrealistic to unAmerican. But she has not made a compelling case for how she herself would address the dislocations and anxiety that are partially the byproduct of the economic globalization that Bill Clinton and Obama both embraced wholeheartedly.
“It is a real challenge, particularly on the economy,” says veteran Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “In many places, her more pragmatic approach is very appealing, especially on national security and homeland security, where new ideas can be very dangerous. But on the economy, people—particularly blue-collar workers of all races—are looking for a more fundamental change. She’s going to have to articulate a bigger economic policy.”
Not surprisingly, the longtime Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway is blunter. “Her commanding rationale is what it’s always been: ‘It’s my time and the country is ready for a female president, and it ought to be me,’” Conway says. “And a combination of running for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s third terms. That in itself gives you a messaging headache, because those were two different presidencies and two different Democratic parties, but she can’t afford to alienate either one, because both of those presidencies were beloved by the Democratic base and acceptable to general election voters.”
Running to fill the third term that Ronald Reagan was barred from seeking was enough to elect George H.W. Bush in 1988, but not enough to sustain him when his lack of the “vision thing” left him vulnerable to Bill Clinton four years later. Hillary Clinton now faces a similar challenge.
But Clinton’s advisers contend that her pragmatic message is bearing fruit, in repeated victories over Sanders in big, diverse states. “Hillary Clinton is winning because she’s offering real solutions to big challenges that will make a real difference in people’s lives so everyone can share in the promise of America,” says her chief strategist, Joel Benenson. “And there’s so much cynicism about politics and Washington today, that the vast majority of voters know there aren’t easy or simple answers to our challenges. That’s why Hillary is connecting with people when she talks about breaking down all the barriers holding people back, from corporate greed to racism or sexism…”
At the very moment she’s come close to an insurmountable delegate advantage over Sanders, and is posting a steady 10-point average edge over Trump in general election polls, Clinton could be forgiven for wondering why such a significant slice of the pundit class and members of her own party view her the way her unforgiving father Hugh Rodham did more than 50 years ago, when she’d come home with a single B on her report card and he’d want to know why she hadn’t earned straight A’s.
True, she has the worst unfavorable ratings of any would-be Democratic nominee in modern times, hovering steadily around 55 percent. But Ted Cruz’s are just as bad—and Trump’s 10 or 15 percentage points worse. True, she has blown through millions of dollars and uncounted hours fending off Sanders’ primary challenge in states that she should have been able to ignore, so safe would they normally be for a Democrat in November. But she’ll still be able to count on the core support of Democratic donors and activists determined to hold on to the White House at almost any price.
“Somebody is going to get elected,” says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who worked for Marco Rubio this cycle. “You could have pretty negative ratings, but if your opponent has more negative ratings, relatively, you’re the winner.”
But it is entirely possible to be the winner and still not get much of a mandate—to enter office as a kind of default president who gets in because no other candidate is electable but who doesn’t have the faith and loyalty of a large portion of the nation. Clinton is selling “realism” to a electorate that is, judging from the polls, deeply unhappy with its current reality. Her steady-as-she-goes brand of politics, and her “one from column A and two from column B” ideas are out of sync with the mood of the electorate in this three-sheets-to-the-wind age. To invert the columnist Murray Kempton’s famous maxim about Mayor John Lindsay of New York, she is tired and everyone else is fresh.
And Clinton’s all-things-to-all-people campaign message makes it harder to argue that she’d have a clear-cut agenda that would serve her and her party well in office. As George Washington advises the impatient Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway musical “Hamilton,” “Winning was easy, young man. Governing’s harder.”
That is basically Clinton’s contention as well. She has taken to arguing that her demonstrated deficiencies as a candidate pale beside her competence as an executive and administrator in office, and she did, in fact, win generally high approval ratings and praise for her effectiveness as secretary of state and as senator from New York.
But a president’s greatest power is persuasion—and successful persuasion first requires an inspirational vision. John Kennedy pledged to “begin anew,” saying “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” of which he was the exemplar. Ronald Reagan declared it was “morning in America” after the twilight years of the 1970s, a period of big government spending, stagflation and a draining hostage crisis, saying, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Bill Clinton vowed to embrace “change versus more of the same.” Barack Obama promised “change we can believe in,” and pledged to create an army of devotees to carry it out.
Nothing in what pollster Conway calls Clinton’s “knitting together of scattershot sound-bites” comes close to distilling her worldview so succinctly. Indeed, in her victory speech in Brooklyn, she even resorted to borrowing one of her husband’s less than compelling generalities, “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.” Like Obama, she is calling for unity, “breaking down barriers” and compassion—but that seems less like her own personal vision than a stock, stump response to Trump.
“There is something going on out there, and nobody’s quite sure what it is, and what a principled leader can do about it,” says Jeff Shesol, who was a White House speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “What do you do to address it, because it’s something that needs to be addressed, and the next president ought to have something to say about it. The answers of Sanders I think are all too pat, they’re just sort of impulses. And I think Hillary Clinton holds herself to a higher standard. But when you do that, when you acknowledge the answers aren’t that easy, then what do you say. I don’t think she knows yet.”
Sanders’ liberal insurgency—and Trump’s nativist challenge from the right—have posed challenges for Clinton because at a time when two thirds of voters are dissatisfied with the economy, both candidates have “an economic narrative,” as Celinda Lake puts it. “They have an origins story. They tell us how we got here, and who’s to blame—in Sanders’ case Wall Street, in Trump’s immigrants. If you can’t tell us how we got here, and who the villains are, how are we going to get out of it?”
Lake says she believes Clinton resists pat answers both because she’s wary of making false promises, and also because she “has a mixed economic view—she doesn’t see things in black and white.”
That may well be an admirable trait in a president, but more than seven years of Obama’s resolutely rationalist leadership may have also shown the limits of its political effectiveness—which is why the electorate seems in the mood for such a different approach today.
There is also every reason to expect a President Hillary Clinton would face intransigence from congressional Republicans equal to or greater than that Obama has faced since taking office, especially if they were licking their wounds in the aftermath of a massive Trump defeat. She would be all but guaranteed to face a bruising Supreme Court confirmation battle right out of the box—whether over Obama’s centrist nominee Merrick Garland or a more reliably liberal choice her supporters might impel her to nominate. And she would face the wrath of the dead-end supporters of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who would see her as selling out Democratic values.
“Sanders is posting Kim Jong Il-like numbers among young people,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, “and those are people with no connection or loyalty to the Clintons whatsoever.”
Far from all Democrats are pessimistic about the prospects for success of a Clinton presidency. “It’s just one of the disjunctions of American politics that the skills required to be a great candidate are not necessarily related to the skills of a great president,” Mellman says. Presidents as different as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush may well be cases in point.
Democratic media strategist Steve McMahon says Clinton’s campaign contention that she’s a pragmatist who can get things done “is not a very powerful message in the Democratic primary. Democrats are ideologues.” But, he adds, “In a general election, and especially in a presidency, that quality becomes very important. At the end of the day, it’s probably the case that only a pragmatist can get anything done in the current climate.”
Yet there is a reason Clinton has twice struggled to win her own party’s nomination, first against a charismatic young African-American who promised a historic breakthrough that she herself could have bid fair to match, and now against a rumpled septuagenarian who has emerged as the unlikely avatar of the millennial generation. The reason goes well beyond whether she’s a warm and cuddly campaigner, or as effective a speechmaker as her husband at his best.
At the heart of the problem is her enduring difficulty in explaining—clearly and cleanly—what she actually aspires to do as president. And that’s a problem that seems likely to get worse before it gets better.
Source: Politico

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