I watched the Democratic debate on Univision last night, and I have a lot to say about it, but there was one line that I thing should worry anyone who doesn’t want to see Donald Trump become the next president of the United States: when Hillary Clinton said, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.”
With these words, Clinton essentially admitted to being bad at politics. What’s more, the “in case you haven’t noticed” reads as deliberate understatement: she’s implicitly acknowledging that her lack of talent for politics has become painfully obvious by now. And boy is she right.
In 2008, she ran a campaign that seemed grounded in little more than the fact that she was married to a former president. After losing that primary, she seems to have spent 8 years working behind the scenes trying to make sure the 2016 primary would be stacked in her favor in every conceivable way. She racked up endorsements, potential strong primary opponents chose not to run, and the DNC deliberately scheduled the primary debates in a way designed to minimize viewership.
The fact that she’s struggling to lock up the nomination in spite of all these advantages is embarrassing. And it raises serious questions about her effectiveness as a general-election candidate. Part of this is her abundant baggage–the Wall Street money, the e-mail server which she hasn’t been honest about. But she’s also a remarkably inept campaigner.
As I’ve watched the debates, Clinton has gradually lost me on issues (like immigration and trade) where I initially expected to agree with her more than Sanders. She acts like she’s terrified of angering Sanders’s supporters, and is just wishing the primary would be over as soon as possible. And her attacks on Sanders, though they sometimes contain a nugget of truth, mostly feel like she’s throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick. This approach has started backfiring.
As I said yesterday, I believe that if the general election were held today, and the major-party nominees were Trump and Clinton, Clinton would win by a comfortable margin. But I dread seeing what she could do to herself through five to six months of political ineptitude. I fear Clinton’s campaign against Trump could end up looking like the bungled campaigns of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Clinton’s haphazard attacks on Sanders are especially worrying, because they suggest she may not do an effective job at exploiting Trump’s considerable weaknesses. Look at Marco Rubio’s attacks on Trump: though they included potentially very effective material about how Trump’s businesses have hurt the blue-collar whites who make up his base, he ruined it with the distraction of Trump’s penis size.
Clinton might not be so vulgar, but from her performance so far, she could easily waste time with attacks that are more high-brow but equally half-baked. Or worse, maybe she’d try to put a high-brow spin on the penis issue: “Donald Trump is never going to be president, because I think the American people see that he does not have the temperament to be commander in chief. Look, [interviewer name], he has this bizarre insecurity about the size of his hands. How do you elect someone like that president?”
As I typed out the above two sentences, trying to put them in Clinton’s voice, there was a moment where it almost felt like a clever approach. The problem is that every minute people are talking about Trump’s penis is a minute in which they’re not talking about the more serious objections to him. I’m not sure Clinton will be capable of recognizing things like that and acting accordingly.
I can’t ignore Sanders’s own weaknesses as a presidential candidate. If he becomes the Democratic nominee, the “socialist” label alone might not hurt him much, but his past statements on the Sandinistas and Castro will be a major target for attacks. Frankly, I wish we didn’t have presidential term limits so we could just run Barack Obama for a third term. But given the actual options, I’d rather take my chances with Sanders at this point.