Even a few weeks ago, let alone several months ago, most would have rolled their eyes at the suggestion that Donald Trump would effectively wrap up his race for the GOP nomination before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton succeeded in securing the Democratic nod. But, with his big wins in Mississippi and Michigan, and a late night win in Hawaii, Trump is virtually impossible to stop while Clinton squandered her lead in Michigan and lost the state narrowly to Sen. Bernie Sanders.
To be clear, it is almost impossible for Sanders to win the nomination. Clinton has opened up a delegate lead based on her big wins in southern states, to which she added last night, trouncing Sanders in Mississippi. If she and Sanders continue to essentially divide the big Midwestern states of Ohio and Illinois that come next week, they will split the delegates, while Sanders needs to close the gap. He would need to start winning some big states by a margin of 60 to 40 or more to catch her, and that seems unlikely. But, he has the money and enough momentum to keep going and with big states like California and New Jersey not voting until June 7, this race is not going away anytime soon.
Clinton had pleaded with the people of Michigan to put her firmly on a trajectory to secure the nomination. “The sooner I can become your nominee, the more I can begin to turn my attention to the Republicans,” she told a rally in Detroit. But, the voters do not want her to make that turn quite yet. They want her to continue to listen to them, to why they are responding to Sanders’ inspirational, if somewhat fanciful, call for a political revolution. Voters are angry with the leaders of both parties, and with elites in general, and Clinton has not convinced them that she understands why, still less proposed the kind of policies and ideological approach to policy, for which they are clamoring. She got hammered among those voters who think international trade has hurt American workers, and most Democrats think that trade has caused that harm.
The voters are right and Clinton is wrong, tied to a conventional wisdom that is not working this year. The conventional wisdom was expressed by CNN’s Gloria Borger last night who said that Sanders’ win will mean that it will take longer for Clinton to pivot to the center. David Axelrod, who knows a thing or two about winning campaigns, jumped in to suggest that pivoting to the center, at least on economic issues, might not be the best strategy for November. Kudos to Axelrod. Indeed, the last thing Clinton needs is a pivot, which would only raise more questions about her constancy and trustworthiness.
But, later in the evening, someone on Team Clinton said something that was shocking in its honesty, even if that honesty was unintended. CNN reported that a campaign insider said that Team Clinton had not underestimated Sanders, they “misunderstood the electorate.” It is a damning admission. It is the admission of a campaign organized around a woman who did not think there was anything unseemly about accepting obscenely large speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. It was the admission of a campaign that does not realize that many voters do not share their enthusiasm for the Clinton brand. And, most importantly for her campaign to consider as they chart the way forward, it is an admission that Democratic voters may not be angry at President Obama, but they are very angry about the ill effects of globalization which have fallen disproportionately on the working class of this country. The more Clinton is made to focus on that reality before she secures the nomination, the better shot she will have in November.
The immediate task for Team Clinton, however, is to get out some pink slips. Whoever thought it was a good idea to attack Sanders for voting against the auto bailout, a charge that was a half-truth at best, should be fired: Candidates like Clinton who are having trouble with their numbers on the issue of trustworthiness should stay away from half-truths. And, whoever came up with the line in Clinton’s latest stump speech that we do not need to make America “great,” we need to make it “whole,” should also be shown the door. Whole? Do we look to politicians to make us whole? Voters want a job and a raise, not an Oprah-like lesson in consciousness.
The second task for Clinton is to find a credible way to address the issues raised by globalization. A good place to start would be to admit that the DLC-inspired, pro-trade agenda was never a good fit for the Democrats because it was never a good policy for the country. Instead of dragging American workers down, we need to lift up the wages of workers in other countries. Yes, free enterprise plays a role in this, but it cannot play the only role. And, she would be well advised to adopt a straightforward critique of the shift in the past forty to fifty years from a stakeholder economy to a shareholder economy. Here is an accessible theme that speaks to the aspirations to be “whole” as a community and a nation, to be responsible for one another and to each other, that would contrast nicely with the narcissism of Mr. Trump.
Trump had a great night. It is hard to see which states start lining up for Sen. Ted Cruz: The south was supposed to be his turf, but he lost most of the southern states to Trump. And, Sen. Marco Rubio had the worst night of all: He was in single digits in both Michigan and Mississippi, and did no better than third in any of the four states that voted yesterday. And, in addition, the calendar now conspires to keep anyone from emerging as the anti-Trump candidate: Cruz is the only candidate with even a distant shot at taking on Trump, yet it is Kasich in Ohio and Rubio in Florida who will be competing with Trump for the biggest prizes next week.
I admit I was surprised that Sanders won Michigan, surprised and delighted. And, I have been surprised that Cruz did not do better throughout the south the past couple of weeks. But, this year, there is no shame in being surprised. We have entered into new political terrain this year and it is far from clear that any prognosticators have found the right maps or coordinates to chart a way towards understanding what is going on. This is not a bad thing. At the end of the day, it is the voters who are registering their sentiments and, God love ‘em, they are both sovereign and surprising this year.