So now it’s almost fall, and now, thanks to the most recent State email release, we know that Hillary Clinton apparently still believes in appointment TV (she wanted to know what time The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation were on) and that Lanny Davis does not employ the light touch.
And oh yeah, we know her campaign is in trouble. We know that because it’s always in trouble. That’s one of the chief rules of 2015-16 political journalism in America. Whatever it is, it’s #badforHillary.
If she’s in trouble, it’s a trouble I’d imagine every other candidate would crave being in. Consider, for example, the following question. Here is the RealClearPolitics page on presidential general election match-ups—Clinton vs. Trump, Bush, Walker, Rubio, Kasich, Cruz, etc. It shows 40 different polls results pitting Clinton against 11 different GOP contenders. In how many of those 40 does Clinton trail her opponent?
I’ll give you the answer later. But for now, here’s my assessment of Clinton Campaign Phase 1, as summer winds down. In policy terms, it’s been surprisingly strong. As I’ve written, she’s been more progressive-populist on economics than I expected. Fine, she’s not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but in terms of middle-class economics questions, she’s embraced positions that Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, and her husband wouldn’t touch. She’s ducked an issue or two, like trade, but she’s gone farther faster than almost anyone expected.
But very few people are paying much attention to this, because Clinton has these other two problems that can’t yet be overcome with policy substance. The first of course is the emails. The second is a real, though often overstated by the media, enthusiasm problem. In the out-year autumn Phase II of her campaign, she needs to start changing some people’s minds on these two matters.
The email story has already damaged her, there’s no doubt of that. She has one big chance to turn the story around this fall—when she testifies before the House “Benghazi” committee in October. That committee, now empanelled longer than Frank Church’s intelligence reform committee in the 1970s—an actually important committee that found out actually important things—isn’t even pretending to be about the Benghazi attacks anymore. It’s a taxpayer-funded get-Clinton operation, and it’s now all about finding a smoking gun in these emails.
If Clinton handles her testimony well, she can get more Americans to see what a fraud the committee is. For the past couple of months, the committee has receded into the background. The email story looks to most people, even really informed ones, like a skirmish between the Clinton campaign and the Justice Department. Most people haven’t the slightest idea that the committee set this process in motion. If the committee becomes the issue again, then the email story can become not solely “Hillary is shifty” but something with two layers: “OK, Hillary may be shifty, but those guys are using taxpayer money to conduct an obviously partisan dirt-digging operation, and that’s worse.”
As for the enthusiasm thing, it seems to be a real problem. I talk to relatives who are Democrats. Yes, they say, I’ll vote for her, but I’m not exactly pumped up about it.
This kind of thing sorts itself out over time. Once she gets into a general-election race (if she does) against whatever Republican, and the GOP is selling buttons of her riding a broomstick and paying for robocalls saying that she wants to send your children to political education camps and all that madness, rank-and-file Democrats will have her back.
But she can’t wait that long. She’s running against a guy who’s drawing crowds of 15,000 and more, crowds that right now she quite frankly can’t draw. What effect would three more months of that—Bernie Sanders speaking at basketball arenas, Clinton speaking at events the size of PTA meetings—have on perceptions and poll numbers?
The Clinton campaign needs to do something to create the sense that there is in fact enthusiasm for her out there in the land. There surely is. But who are these Clinton enthusiasts? I’d say the campaign needs to find some of them, and obviously they can’t be just baby boomer white women, and put them in some YouTube ads to show the media and the rest of the country that yes, there are in fact citizens out there who actually can’t wait for her to take the oath of office, a subset of people that no one inside the Beltway believes exists.
Now, back to my question. Out of 40 head-to-head polls against 11 Republican candidates, Clinton trails in exactly two. There’s one Fox poll from mid-August where Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio each lead her by two points. But 38 other times, she’s ahead, and usually not by especially close margins. She’s +9 on John Kasich and +8.8 on Donald Trump and +4.7 on Scott Walker. Only Bush and Rubio are close. That seems to me a pretty enviable position for a floundering campaign to be in.
Nevertheless, she isn’t where she could be or should be. And my two maladies are related. She screwed up this email business in the first place by not using a state.gov email address, and it just gives too many supporters that “Oy, here we go again” feeling. She has to reassure Democrats that if she’s president, she’s going to be smarter and more careful than that. This is I think the main thing Democrats want to know about her—that she’ll do her part to minimize the Clinton circus. When Democrats feel more persuaded of that, the enthusiasm will come.