"Hillary panic" is spreading: Can she fend off Bernie, those stupid emails and that deepening sense of doom?

Clinton is clearly still the frontrunner -- right? So why does her campaign feel like it's heading for disaster?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 5, 2015 4:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/David Becker/Salon)
(Reuters/David Becker/Salon)

When Hillary Clinton announced in April that she was running for president – which is pretty much the only aspect of the 2016 campaign so far that has gone according to plan – I wrote about her unique ability to drive people crazy: Those who love her and those who hate her; those who support her fervently and those who might drink themselves or blackmail themselves into voting for her; and those who would rather vote for a dead porcupine or for Ted Cruz, whichever of those things winds up as the Republican nominee. (Or on the head of the Republican nominee, in one specific case.)

I made a number of incorrect assumptions at that time -- as, in fairness, did 100 percent of everybody else. I assumed that Clinton would face only token opposition on the Democratic side, did not foresee the irresistible human-fireball act of the Donald Trump campaign, and understood the principal victims of “Hillary derangement syndrome,” during this particular cycle, to be tormented progressives tying themselves in knots over the inevitable ascendancy of an unstoppable candidate they could only barely stand.

That was then -- and, oh boy, this is now. Rational analysis and conventional wisdom would suggest that Hillary Clinton remains the leading candidate in the Democratic race, and is probably positioned to win the nomination even if she loses to Bernie Sanders in Iowa or New Hampshire or both. If we take two steps back from our overheated social-media feed, we might also notice that it’s still almost five months until the Iowa caucuses, and more than a year until we supposedly get around to electing a new president. One of these years we’ll just dump that last part, don’t you think? We enjoy the campaigns so much more than the dreary business of trying to govern the country.

But I digress. The larger point is that rational analysis and the calcified nuggets of wisdom delivered by veteran political reporters and all the reassurances about how order will ultimately be restored and the campaign narrative shoved back into its familiar container don’t look too useful or reliable right now. And the hilarious wrongness of the media and political caste so far in this campaign raises certain questions, such as whether all those well-worn bromides of truth about the way politics “always” works were ever anything more than ideological fictions designed to shape the outcome.

In any case, we have a candidate and a psychic disorder to discuss, even if the candidate often seems more like a holographic projection or a dream figure than an actual person, and the disorder keeps threatening to break out of the psychological realm, Freddy Krueger-style, and reshape reality. Hillary derangement syndrome has spread into full-on Hillary panic and its symptoms are everywhere, even if the growing sense that her candidacy is in trouble is based largely on hunches and anecdotes and scattered shreds of evidence, and not on anything that could be called data. Sanders’ most zealous supporters will perceive all such caveats, of course, as subtle attempts to torpedo his campaign and desperately reapply some Turtle Wax to Clinton’s cracked veneer of inevitability. That too is a symptom of Hillary panic: The Sanders movement is collectively afraid that it will wake up tomorrow and realize it really was all just a dream, that their guy is at 9 or 11 percent in the polls and that we’re heading straight toward the Jebbary election that the lawyers and bankers thought they had lined up the whole time.

In this year where nobody knows anything, I most certainly do not know whether Sanders can surf his unexpected wave of left-wing populism all the way to the Democratic nomination, or how much credence to give a handful of polls suggesting that he might fare no worse than Clinton in head-to-head matchups with leading Republicans, and could do better than her in some crucial swing states. Crunching the electoral math is not really my strength, and crunching the electoral math 14 months before the election is closer to wishcasting or mythology than statistical analysis. But even if those polls contain more noise than signal, they are meaningful as manifestations of Hillary panic, and as each one of them erupts onto the media landscape, they spread the virus still further.

It’s not entirely fair to say that Clinton’s current moment of crisis is self-inflicted, and indeed the situation is so murky that it’s not entirely clear this is a crisis, in political terms, rather than a somewhat predictable if angsty hiccup near the beginning of a long campaign. I seem to recall that she is related to someone whose political death knell was sounded repeatedly, and who displayed a Dracula-like aptitude for clawing his way out of the tomb. But one aspect of the distorting effect that both Hillary Clinton and her husband have on the political environment is the way they attract all kinds of bad stuff, which then sticks to them and cannot easily be scraped off. They’re like human magnets for evil thoughts and evil deeds, covered with Velcro and coated in molasses.

To cite the obvious and damaging present-tense example, Clinton’s email “scandal” from her years as Secretary of State refuses to go away or even to fade significantly, even though it was unquestionably cooked up and then nourished by Republicans and so far there appears to be no substance to it beyond an initial error in judgment that violated advisory rules but was not illegal. In Clinton’s extensive interview on Friday with Andrea Mitchell of NBC, a reporter she has known for many years, the first 12 questions and roughly half the airtime entirely concerned the email affair. That part of the conversation went more or less dreadfully, and by the time Clinton got around to talking about women’s rights and the Syrian crisis and the Iranian nuclear deal – areas where she is vastly more comfortable, right or wrong -- the dire headlines had already been written.

I’m not sure, as a matter of political calculation, whether Clinton should have offered a straightforward apology for using her private email account while holding a cabinet office or simply have continued to insist that she did nothing wrong. But in the Mitchell interview, she herself appeared beset by Hillary panic. She apparently misstated Colin Powell’s track record at the State Department. She responded to a question about her decision to wipe a server clean and delete 30,000 personal emails by saying, “I’m glad you asked that, Andrea.” (A statement that is never true.) When asked why she continued using her personal email after moving from the Senate to the State Department, Clinton said, “You know, I was not thinking a lot when I got in.”

I am not remotely suggesting that any of those answers points toward actual wrongdoing. Whatever she did or did not do with her State Department emails would not make my personal top-20 list of Bad Things Hillary Clinton Has Done. But to haul out a hoary truism, perception is not just more important than reality in politics, it basically is reality, and the perceived reality of Hillary panic is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Her various non-apologies and minor rhetorical dodges during the Mitchell interview – “I certainly wish that I had made a different choice,” and “It would have been better if I’d had two separate accounts” and “I now disagree with the choice that I made” and “I’m trying to do a better job of explaining it to the American people” and, perhaps worst of all, “I’m sorry that this has been confusing for people” – did not improve matters. They carry the faint but persistent flavor of something that is not quite dishonesty but does not resemble refreshing candor either. They are legalistic. They sound a little too much like “It depends what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” In a word, they are Clintonesque.

So Chris Christie, seizing on Hillary panic as the last hope for his hopeless campaign, has been making the rounds of the talk shows to say that based on his expertise as a former prosecutor, not to mention the only New Jersey governor in recent memory not to be convicted of a crime or forced to resign (although there’s still time for that), he sort of halfway thinks that maybe she should go to prison. That’s not going to help Christie much, unless at least eight of the other Republican candidates get struck by lightning while touring Iowa cornfields, and nobody seriously believes that Clinton faces legal proceedings of any consequence. But even bogus pronouncements by sleazebag Republican governors about how Hillary panic is worse than we think have the effect of spreading Hillary panic.

It has now become clear that Joe Biden is roaming the halls of that weird house where they keep the vice president, drinking non-alcoholic beer and warming up his malapropisms before the portrait of Aaron Burr. Pollsters have begun to suggest that Biden tracks better in swing-state matchups than either Clinton or Sanders, and offers the Democrats their best shot at recapturing some of the working-class white voters who have been guzzling the Republican Kool-Aid, spiked with the flavorless Everclear of racism, for the last 35 years. That sounds mostly like hogwash, especially given that Biden is not a candidate and has no money or staff or organization. As for the so-called Reagan Democrats, they have either died off or long ago ceased to be remotely available to the Democrats. There is a 2016 candidate who has been eagerly embraced by disgruntled white people in the heartland who is not Joe Biden, and who has his name on a lot of ugly buildings in Manhattan.

Again, I am less interested in trying to figure out the electoral calculus than in decoding this moment of Hillary panic, and penetrating the cloud of doubt and uncertainty that now surrounds a candidate who looked like a shoo-in three or four months ago. Some people afflicted with Hillary panic fervently hope that Bernie Sanders’ big rallies and the drifting tea leaves of the polls, along with the media’s obsessive focus on the email scandal and the minutiae of Clinton’s signaling and semiotics, mean that her campaign is foundering and she’s about to get sideswiped once again by an unlikely outsider riding the train of history.

Others, of course, suffer from a disabling fear that this may be so. One of my Facebook friends, a Los Angeles film critic and ardent Clinton supporter who has been doing vigorous battle with Sanders acolytes for months, threw up her hands the other day and despairingly congratulated the left for having scuttled the most qualified and electable candidate, thrown away the historical breakthrough of a female president, guaranteed the demise of Roe v. Wade and doomed us to Republican tyranny into the indefinite future. As far as I can tell, this capitulation came in response to Conor Friedersdorf’s recent post in the Atlantic arguing that Clinton is out of step with the Democratic base on numerous issues and does not make sense as the 2016 nominee. He made some valid if familiar points, but I'm not aware that Friedersdorf is in charge of picking the president.

Both these facets of Hillary panic reflect the same underlying phenomenon, as does the fact that Clinton's right-wing persecutors can throw almost any outrageous and unfounded accusation at her and have it stick at least a little. Some of her supporters appear to believe that Clinton was entitled to the nomination by acclamation, and that it was disloyal for her to face any meaningful opposition or scrutiny from the Democratic left (a phenomenon previously observed in 2008). On the flip side, we find the illogical belief that Clinton’s deep-pockets campaign, built on a national organization and years’ worth of carefully wrought strategy, is a paper tiger liable to sudden collapse because a left-wing curmudgeon from Vermont has the college crowd excited.

Those beliefs are effectively the same belief, or rather the same deep-rooted sense that no one anywhere on the political spectrum is all that comfortable with Hillary Clinton, and that the more closely people look at her, the less inclined they will be to elect her president. You can argue that this is untrue or unproven, and you can say that it's not really Clinton’s fault, and that Hillary panic is a product of tide and circumstance. But the perception is widespread. Through her husband, she is tied to an era of weathervane politics and a strategy of centrist triangulation and Republicrat appeasement that produced all kinds of noxious consequences – from the mass incarceration of African-American men for drug offenses to the financial collapse of 2008 -- and is viewed by progressives with justifiable distaste or worse. Any hint of scandal flung at her, no matter how irrelevant, conjures up unwanted memories of the scandal that destroyed her husband’s presidency. No Republican needs to mention the name of “that woman” or bring up the stained dress, but those images lurk out there on the fringes of collective consciousness.

You do not have to like Hillary Clinton or vote for her to agree that she is a highly qualified presidential candidate in conventional terms, but even that is problematic these days. She is a consummate political calculator and an advocate of incremental policy adjustment and marginal compromise, facing a moment when the public feels profoundly alienated from all such things and yearns for stronger coffee, flavored with a dash of socialism or fascism or flat-out insanity.

I cannot resist feeling that a certain degree of karmic justice is being meted out here, and that the nightmare scenario some leading Democrats are beginning to contemplate – a Clinton implosion, with no one from the party’s center still standing to stop Bernie Sanders – is one it created for itself. (Hence, Joe Biden in the bullpen.) Of course it’s much more likely that the Hillary panic of summer 2015 is just a shadow passing over the political moon as we travel back toward normalcy, and not an imminent sign of an inescapable doom that we all suddenly realize we saw coming. But Hillary Clinton's problem is precisely that she has looked like the likely next president for so long, and right now nobody feels too confident about placing their bets on "likely."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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