Hillary Clinton, who in the end is likely to be the last line of defense against a Donald Trump presidency, is not yet ready for the battle against Trump in today’s new political and celebrity media reality. A seasoned pro of the old school, she is as prepared for the presidency as one could be. But in today’s political dynamic, her assets are also liabilities, and could lead to her downfall, much to the frustration of many voters hoping to see the first woman president.
Bernie Sanders keeps winning primaries and caucuses, besting Clinton in Michigan on Tuesday in perhaps his most shocking victory thus far. He is raising boatloads of money, and following Michigan likely a lot more, which will make things more difficult for Hillary. Maybe there is a path for Bernie to win the nomination, but in the end, given the role of the superdelegates, it is still a very steep climb for him to win. Assuming Sanders doesn’t win, that raises a big question: How will Hillary grapple with Trump?
Many Democrats have been rubbing their hands in glee over the prospect of a Hillary/Donald general election. Maybe in the end they will be right. But in the meantime, there are many factors challenging that assumption. When added up, they suggest that Hillary must change and become a candidate of aspiration, not of pragmatism, or she could be in trouble.
Trump and Sanders Emotional Connection
Never in our lifetime have we had two potentially electable presidential candidates who are connecting in deep emotional ways with voters, using ideas and tactics far outside of the conventional wisdom of what was thought to be acceptable in America. Presidential politics in the U.S. will never be the same, and it surely won’t if Trump is elected.
The old-style Hillary can seem like a bad therapist. She will listen to what you have to say, maybe even utter some soothing words, like I know how you feel, and then try to talk you out of your feelings. She will suggest what you are thinking isn’t good for you. This is Hillary trying to tell the world that Bernie is unrealistic, impractical, the banks are complicated, there are no easy solutions, etc. This is not the approach that will motivate voters and bring the necessary turnout in key states that she needs, nor will it motivate younger voters hungry for change. In contrast, Trump voters are very motivated.
Trump is essentially telling voters, “You have every reason to feel like you do; I feel the same way.” He tells people their feelings matter. He is saying, I get it. I know why you are angry about immigrants taking your jobs (and yes, some of them do,) scared of Muslims after 15 years of steady fear-mongering by Bush/Cheney, conservatives, the FBI, etc. He also says, You are sick and tried of big money, lobbyists, the super-wealthy controlling the system at every turn rendering you, the voter, less than nothing. I feel your pain. I hear you. I know you are desperate and I will change things. Together we will make America great again.
Of course, there is also a lot of misogynist, fascist, bullying, contemptous crap thrown into the mix of messages Trump puts out. But that does not mean Trump isn’t tapping into the aspirations of his supporters. More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, Bernie is also articulating the way a lot of people really feel and not just liberals and progressives, but working-class people as well. This is why hedoes better than Hillary against Trump in polls. He is generally saying, Our system sucks. It is screwing you. I know it, you know it, I don’t accept it, and you shouldn’t either. Together we can do something about it.
The reason his message resonates among younger voters—where there arestriking differences between support for Bernie and for Hillary—is young people are the most screwed, with limited jobs, huge loans and few prospects. Hillary often suggests, Yes, we can fiddle around the edges, cut back on some of the high interest rate on student loans, maybe make the banks change a little… but that does not seem like enough. She may need to make a dramatic split with her past to get the attention she will need.
The old-style politics: rational, policy oriented, pundit-influenced, has been swept away by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Why haven’t we had candidates like this in the past? The quick answer is the combination of reality TV, social media, online fundraising, Fox TV and the infantilizing of the voters with disinformation by Republicans and the conservative media for the last decade and longer. On top of this is the overlay of massive inequality which translates to an electorate that has been trampled upon and left behind. The top 15% of Americans who most think like Hillary and the punditry—their peers—are not going to decide this election. And for the first time in our lifetime, there are radical options.
The Bad News on the Electability Front
The two most significant question marks on the horizon are Clinton’s electability and the unknown effect of Trump’s authoritarian appeal outside of the Republican Party.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Bernie Sanders' extraordinary and surprising campaign has made mincemeat of the Hillary inevitability-electability argument. Not too long ago, the entire mainstream media saw Bernie as a minor gadfly candidate, treated him with contempt, or more often just ignored him. They still treat him with contempt and hostility, especially at the Washington Post. Despite this, Bernie has won eight primaries and caucuses, though most gave him little or no chance after New Hampshire.
True, Hillary shellacked Bernie in states where there are high numbers of black voters, who remain very enthusiastic about Hillary. But that will not be enough in the general election, even as she’s won in 13 states so far. (Trump has won 15, Sanders has won 9.)
But more important are the weaknesses in the Clinton candidacy that Bernie’s campaign has exposed. Writing on Salon, P.J. Podesta makes this case rather convincingly. Bernie has a much higher favorability rating than Hillary. He is far ahead in terms of his appeal to independent voters, who make up the largest block of overall voters, and consistently does better against GOP opponents including Trump. Bernie’s popularity among young voters creates an almost mindboggling gap with Hillary. It will not be easy to motivate this idealistic constituency for Hillary, when she is unpopular among the millennials. Furthermore, Bernie has made inroads among working-class white voters, presumably an area of intense competition assuming the opponent is Trump. Hillary’s main source of strength is minority voters—very important, but not enough to clinch a victory.
On the issues front, Les Leopold writing on AlterNet strongly argues that Hillary’s positions on three key issues—trade, war and Wall Street/big banks—make her vulnerable against an authoritarian populist candidate, which is what Trump will present. (Bernie is stronger on each of these issues, which leads Leopold to argue he is the better candidate against Trump.) Trump is likely to confound people with his positions in a general race, where he tilts left and right simultaneously, picking up angry working-class voters victimized by rising inequality, while attracting conservatives with his bellicose views on immigration and Muslims.
The appeal of Trump’s authoritarianism beyond the GOP race is the other big wild card. Matthew C. MacWilliams, writing on AlterNet and using his own research, makes a strong correlation between Trump voters and authoritarian tendencies in the GOP primaries. To many observers this is no surprise. The big question is how much the authoritarian appeal spreads to independent voters, more angry white males, as it is clear that authoritarian impulses cross party and class lines.
“Trump’s support is firmly rooted in an American version of authoritarianism that, once awakened and stoked, is a force to be reckoned with,” MacWilliams writes. “And until quite recently, the institutions and leaders tasked with guarding against what Madison called ‘the infection of the violent passions’ among the people have either been cowed by Trump’s bluster or derelict in performing their civic duty.”
It’s easy to forget that conservatives and fearful racists have aspirations too. The search for higher meaning is universal, not just the province of progressives. As psychologist Michael Bader wrote on AlterNet:
“The psychic need for a higher sense of meaning and purpose is manifested in many different ways. It’s a need for significance. It’s a longing to be part of something bigger and better than our lonely and isolated selves. Spiritual traditions and practices express it most directly in our culture. It’s also a wish to connect with and influence the future, to be part of the flow of history. Artists feel it; social activists trying to change the world feel it; parents who strive to provide their children with a better future tap into this need. People feel it in every walk of life. When communities turn out to help each other following a disaster, you can see it expressed. People get satisfaction from contributing to the whole, and from being part of a community of meaning seeking to influence history.
"Conservative audiences have this need as well. Trump’s vow to make America great again speaks to it. Mega-churches grow on the basis of gratifying this and other needs. Even ethnocentric calls for persecuting and expelling immigrants speak to the need for meaning and purpose in a perverse way; namely, that there is a 'we' that is special but imperiled by a 'them' and that if we get rid of them, we can realize the American Dream. It’s a dream that depends on a demonized other, but it’s a dream nonetheless.”
Trying to get elected at a time when celebrity, politics, social media and traditional media have all merged into one requires a whole new set of skills—skills Trump has been practicing for more than two decades. He has flirted with running for president a number of times and has been in the media spotlight nonstop, especially during the 14-year run of "The Apprentice." And of course, the Donald is the master tweeter. (This may be an instance when one of the more superficial creations of the high-tech billionaire economy plays havoc with our politics at the highest level.) If Trump can set the media’s agenda every day with his tweets, then Hillary is in trouble. And Trump is already going after Hillary and setting the stage.
Many voters—and this is not new—are not interested in pragmatic logic, policy ideas and rational linear thinking. As I wrote in February, voting is an emotional act. And Hillary’s future success and the ability to stop Donald Trump are in doubt until and unless she acts more clearly on this fundamental truth and becomes a transformational leader. She needs to hear people’s pain and lead them to the hope for a better life. Her campaign cannot be based on the fact that she is the pragmatic middle. She can’t consistently tell people they have to compromise to adjust to the unhappy life they have.
Indeed, this is why some former advisors from Bill Clinton’s White House are taking the threat posed by a Trump candidacy more seriously than the candidate herself. “For all the GOP frontrunner’s flaws, many veteran Democrats [say] Trump is a canny operator who just might end up in the White House if they’re not careful,” wrote Politico’s Daniel Lippman, who then quoted Doug Sosnik. “It’s fair to say there’s been a graveyard already out there of people underestimating him.”
What Can Hillary Do?
The likely conventional wisdom among insiders, many who still do not understand the new political reality, will be to take Bernie voters for granted, assume that younger voters will come around to Hillary as the lesser of two evils, and move even more to the center to pick up moderate voters tempted by Trump. But that thinking is flawed.
Trump’s appeal is not about labels or policy distinctions, which is why he is able to win very conservative as well as moderate voters in the same primaries. The way Hillary can win is to admit her old ways of big money and insider politics are wrong, and that she gets it. It is necessary to change, as the world has changed. She must have a vision for the future that embraces people’s aspirations, not searching for some illusive pragmatism.
Here are nine suggestions for what Hillary can do:
1. Embrace Bernie as soon as she can: The sooner she can emotionally acknowledge Sanders as authentically speaking truth to power and say she has learned from him, the better. She needs to say, now, that Bernie has the ear of many Americans with legitimate concerns and she has learned from him and wants to learn more. She wants to mix her vast experience with her new information about how badly people are suffering and take steps to remedy the vast inequality.
2. Give back the speaking fees. She should send back Goldman Sachs speaking fees or give them to charity. She needs to say it was a mistake to do those speeches for large sums of money. She can say that was how things used to work, but they can't work like that anymore.
3. Issue a V.P. list. She should announce a short list of people she would consider for vice president, should she get the nomination. Bernie should be included, but probably Elizabeth Warren should be at the top of the list, which should include a leading Latino and African American, and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, another progressive Democrat with working-class roots.
4. Campaign with Bernie. If she wins a majority of delegates, she should ask Bernie to campaign with her before the convention because their common enemy is Trump. She should meet with Bernie during the campaign. She needs to say she wants him to campaign with her and he will have a meaningful role in her campaign, and her administration, if she is elected.
5. Revive listening tours. She should start having townhall meetings in working-class neighborhoods in Detroit, Cleveland and across America, and teach-ins where she hears testimony from voters who are feeling the pain, instead of giving canned speeches. She did this before she was elected senator from New York and it was effective.
6. Put immigration reform atop the agenda. She should hold teach-ins where legal immigrants offer testimony and suggestions for how to deal with undocumented immigrants, and turn these conversations into commercials that show both compassion and firmness. Who better to talk about the undocumented than those who are here legally and whose extended family may be undocumented, along with data about what undocumented people contribute, and the potential harm to citizens with special visas like H2B, used by domestic workers, factory workers, hospitality industry, etc.
7. Change her higher education stance. She should agree with Bernie on free tuition at public universities and commit herself to finding a way to make it happen. Her remedies are too narrowly targeted and allow banks to keep charging unnecessarily high student loan interest rates. Showing that she is adopting some of his proposals will make it easier for Sanders’ supporters to join her campaign if she’s the nominee.
8. Change her Social Security stance. She should empathize with the plight of senior citizens on Social Security—who saw no cost-of-living increase in 2016—and strongly favor increasing benefits across the board instead of pushing more targeted increases for women and minorities. She should also strongly oppose raising the age of when senior benefits can first be taken and firmly support raising the level of income that’s taxed for Social Security, as well as include investment income in that total.
9. Pioneer a new way of swaying red states. Hillary’s team should produce an Oprah-style TV show in red states (or any state) that builds on the townhall format, but is broadcast over local channels and social media. This would feature her talking to the full spectrum of society, in formats where voters explain their problems. In response, she conveys her basic principles and educates the public on the positive role government can have in resolving their issues.
The goal here is not just getting elected, but having a mandate to govern and creating a basis to help bend gerrymandered Republican-majority districts her way. By traveling to their districts and broadcasting through her own media channel, Hillary could revive respect for a governmental role in solving society’s problems. Such a format would supplant the predominant and quite empty use of rallies with sound bites and platitudes and endorsements.
Mixing Evolution and Revolution
There’s a false choice being pedaled by the mainstream media as the race between Clinton and Sanders continues. That narrative says Clinton is the realist, while Sanders is the idealist. It says Clinton knows how to “get things done,” while Sanders indulges wishful thinking. It says Clinton knows how to pay for things, while Sanders is too grandiose and his programs will disrupt and bankrupt the nation.
These polarities are not helpful or accurate, for several reasons. The first is that 2016 is a year where outsiders—in both major parties—are taking control with outsized ideas, and where insiders who have more nuanced prescriptions based on their experience in governing are being rejected. For Clinton to be elected president, she has to blend the best of what she and Bernie are offering. Without that approach, the Democrats are not assured of winning the White House and taking back the U.S. Supreme Court, especially if Trump is the Republican nominee.
It would be a major error for Clinton to minimize the threat posed by Trump’s unusual candidacy, as it would be an error for her to assume that Bernie’s agenda and his supporters will have no choice but to follow her. The best way she can show that to the full range of voters is to embrace Bernie sooner rather than later, just as the best way to reach Americans who will be aghast by the candidate the GOP nominates is to begin a new conversation with voters in red and purple states. The stakes are too high for campaigning as usual—especially in a year where the political playbook is being rewritten.