The headline “Dems Panicky Over Upcoming Election” is sort of like “Parents Flummoxed by App Popular With Teens.” It’s certainly true, but not exactly surprising. That’s the stage we seem to be entering now in the presidential campaign, with furious hand-wringing by Democrats over the prospect that their presidential nominee is ruining everything. And even though Hillary Clinton could be leading the polls by 20 points and you’d have no trouble finding a dozen Democrats in Washington who would tell you that her campaign is a disaster in the making and it’s all about to crumble, there is a fundamental truth underneath it: For all her many skills, Hillary Clinton is just not that good at running for president. That doesn’t mean she won’t be good at being president, and it’s a reminder that the two are not the same thing.
As the New York Times said on Sunday, “early optimism that this would be an easy race is evaporating. In the corridors of Congress, on airplane shuttles between New York and Washington, at donor gatherings and on conference calls, anxiety is spreading through the Democratic Party that Mrs. Clinton is struggling to find her footing.” In certain ways, this belief is overblown. Donald Trump has pulled to within a few points of Clinton in polls, but that’s mostly due to the fact that the Republican primary race is over and Republicans are consolidating around him, while there are still large numbers of Bernie Sanders supporters who say they won’t support her, even though in the end they will (with just a tiny number of exceptions). Once they do, she’ll regain a more comfortable lead.
Nevertheless, it’s also true that a different candidate would probably be farther ahead of Trump. Clinton brings with her the baggage of a quarter-century of controversies, most unfair but some not, that shape how the public looks at her. It must gall her to no end that while Trump tells so many lies both large and small in a given day that we in the media can barely bring ourselves to correct them anymore, she’s the one who’s supposed to have a trustworthiness problem. And Clinton does not have the easy charisma of her husband or George W. Bush – like many previous presidential contenders (most but not all of them unsuccessful), you can see the effort she brings to campaigning.
Clinton’s staff and friends often protest that the real person they know doesn’t come through on the trail and through the media’s filter. They say she’s funny and caring and thoughtful, and if people really got to know her they’d see that. Clinton would hardly be the first about whom you could say something similar; if you saw the behind-the-scenes documentary “Mitt” (which was released after the 2012 campaign ended), you couldn’t help but think more highly of Mitt Romney than you would have if you had just been watching the campaign, no matter what you thought of his policy ideas.
Clinton is also simply not very good at one of the main things presidential candidates have to do, delivering speeches. She has none of Bill’s (or Ronald Reagan’s) conversational ease, or Barack Obama’s mastery of rhetorical rhythm and tone. She tends to over-pronounce every syllable as though she’s reading something for a transcriber and doesn’t want there to be any mistakes, which robs her of anything resembling a natural flow. And of course, as a woman she gets criticized for “shouting” when male politicians raise their voices all the time when speaking over cheering crowds, and no one seems to mind or call them “shrill” (just listen to a Sanders speech some time).
And then there are the strategic questions. Almost four months ago I wrote a piece noting that while both Trump and Sanders have a simple, easy-to-understand message that explains what they think the problem is and why they are the solution, Clinton had yet to come up with a resonant theme for her campaign. She still hasn’t. For a while it was “Breaking Down Barriers,” though you probably didn’t notice. Then for a day or so they tried out “Stronger Together,” which promptly disappeared. Now “Breaking Down Barriers” may be back, but it’s hard to tell.
The point isn’t that she needs a slogan per se, it’s that she needs a way of summarizing what her campaign is about, so that when people vote for her, they have a broad idea of what course they’re choosing for the country. She can’t find it, and neither can the people who work for her. Clinton’s top advisers are actually spending time trying to come up with a Trumpian nickname to hang on Trump – Dangerous Donald? Poor Donald? Dipstick Donald? – which tells you something about their ability to see the forest for the trees.
To be fair, it’s awfully tricky to figure out exactly how to deal with Donald Trump. As former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer says in that Times article, “You have to take the threat of Trump becoming president seriously, but you shouldn’t treat him as a serious person.” Which sounds sensible, but it’s hard to implement in practice. What do you do when Trump blurts out his latest lunatic idea, like defaulting on the national debt in order to save some money or pulling out of NATO? What do you say when he floats another conspiracy theory, like Ted Cruz’s dad being involved in the Kennedy assassination or the Clintons murdering Vince Foster or global warming being a hoax invented by the Chinese? How are you supposed to respond to that? Nobody knows for sure, because we’ve just never seen a candidate with Trump’s bizarre combination of ignorance, buffoonery, demagoguery and bluster.
It’s always hard to know how a politician will perform in a presidential campaign, the most demanding, high-pressure venue in politics. Barack Obama, for instance, had been a state senator for a while and then ran one relatively easy race for the Senate, so it wouldn’t have been too surprising if he hadn’t been able to handle the rigors of a presidential race. But it turned out that in every important way – as a performer, as a manager, as a strategist – he was extraordinarily good at running for president, among the best who had ever done it. Many others who look promising flame out when they reach the national stage. (I’ll confess that I was among the many who thought Scott Walker would be a formidable contender this year.)
Even if Hillary Clinton has corrected some of the mistakes she made eight years ago, like failing to understand the delegate selection process or employing the odious and incompetent Mark Penn as her chief strategist, she was never going to be a great candidate. The things in politics that require intuition and natural talent are not where she excels. The things that require careful study and diligent preparation, on the other hand, are where Clinton can outperform almost anyone. The best candidates can do both, but Clinton was never going to be among them.
Fortunately for her, she has enough built-in advantages, particularly an Electoral College that requires Republicans to sweep almost every swing state in order for them to win and an opponent systematically alienating nearly every key demographic group, that it’s highly likely she’ll win even if she isn’t knocking them dead on the stump. And then we’ll see whether her smarts, her deep understanding of policy, her experience in government, and everything she’s done to prepare for that day can make up for what she lacks.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Paul Waldman