Problems for Team Hillary

by Michael Sean Winters

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The name of the SuperPAC launched to promote the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton in advance of her official entry into the race was called “Ready for Hillary.” And, there is no doubt that a large number of Democrats truly were ready for Hillary, including longtime Clintonistas, those who think it is simply time to have a woman president, those disillusioned by President Obama, and those who, for whatever reason, see leadership qualities in Mrs. Clinton that they believe suit her for the job she now seeks. All these groups together, it turns out, constitute a large majority of the Democratic Party as Mrs. Clinton is leading the race for the Democratic nomination in all the national polls.

The unstated subject of the slogan was “we,” as in, “We are Ready for Hillary.” Turns out, that was not the most important question. This most important question was (and is): Is Hillary ready? And the answer to that question is far from obvious.

The New York Times reported last night that two inspector generals have recommended a criminal probe by the Justice Department into the handling of classified information on Mrs. Clinton’s private email account. As Clinton has acknowledged, she used a private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State, but she also assured the nation that she had never transmitted classified information on that account, which would have been against the law. Nor would such a violation be akin to jay-walking, a minor offense, a bureaucratic snafu, a mere technicality. Not a week seems to go buy without some hacker breaking into private or government computer records and stealing information. Bad enough that the government had no oversight over Mrs. Clinton’s server. But, if she did, even unintentionally, send classified information via an email account that was free from government oversight, the potential for such information to get into the wrong hands is not only greater, but the possibility of detecting a security breach would be greater too. Lurking beneath the particulars of the story is the bigger problem for Clinton, the perception that she and her husband continue to think that the rules don’t apply to people like them, that they are special in ways the rest of us are not. Bill Clinton could beat back that perception whenever the Bubba side of his personality shone through. Hillary Clinton has no similar personality trait that balances the scales.

Politico this morning has an article about the fact that, in response to complaints about the story, the New York Times changed the way it described the potential criminal probe, and even the headline. This is the kind of thing the Clinton campaign is very good at: Making sure the slant of a story, or the wording of a headline, are done in a way that causes the least harm.

It is far from clear that Mrs. Clinton and her team are as adept at capturing the big picture. Take, for example, her defense of Planned Parenthood. Mrs. Clinton chastised the people who “attacked” Planned Parenthood by producing an undercover video of that organization’s officials talking breezily about the dismemberment of unborn children in such a way as to preserve some of their organs. She commended Planned Parenthood for the work that they do and she, correctly, said that these attacks were an attack on a woman’s right to procure an abortion. But, she did not evidence any of the disgust at what was said that even Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood, voiced in distancing herself from her videotaped underlings. At least Clinton did not embrace the new lingo of the pro-choice movement, which seeks to portray abortion as a positive good or as no big deal, sticking to the “most personal difficult decisions” language of the past. And, unlike her husband, Mrs. Clinton did not perceive the opening to have a “Sister Souljah” moment over the controversy, a moment that might have distinguished her from the field, and confronted the image of her as too calculating and timid. It would have cost her nothing, even with her pro-choice base, to have said she was appalled by the videos. 

Clinton’s handling of the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders strikes me as another instance of her inability to grasp the big picture. She has begun talking about income inequality at greater length. She and her team will doubtlessly produce some clear policies to address the issue. But, there is no fire in the belly. If Sanders embodies the “pitchfork left,” she might stipulate that those who are angry because the system doesn’t work for them are justified in their anger, and pivot to a discussion of what can and should be done to re-level the playing field in American economic life. Instead, her comments come across as Bernie-light.

All of this should concern Democrats. If Clinton’s campaign slips, what will they do? The Democratic Party today is defined as much by the politics of identity as by its policies on income. It was one thing to see Mrs. Clinton denied the nomination in 2008: Democrats could make history either way, by nominating the first black nominee or the first woman. If she is denied the nod a second time, and this time to a white male, I suspect many women will feel the game is rigged and stay home in November.

There is a solution: Sen. Elizabeth Warren should be keeping her powder dry. 

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