The New York Times, despite its fealty to the Clinton camp, caught its operatives at a vulnerable moment as the Iowa caucus results rolled in. And the picture that emerges is consistent with that of Hillary herself: elitist, out of touch with the needs of actual voters and presumptuous about what it ought to take to win them over.
The story, Hillary Clinton Campaign, Unnerved by Iowa, Braces for New Hampshire, at points reads like self-parody. And you can see similarly rattled nerves elsewhere. Brookings, which likes to depict itself as detached, had as its lead story in its AM email, “How Hillary Can Move Past Iowa,” with the subhead, “After Iowa, Hillary should take advice from the “West Wing” and skip New Hampshire.” Sounds a tad desperate, no?
We’ll go through the New York Times story in detail. The opening paragraphs depict Clinton staff and supporters expecting a comfortable win of several percentage points and Clinton having prepared only a victory speech that focused on Republicans. As the results streamed in, the mood darkened:
The outcome in Iowa — which at least until Tuesday afternoon appeared to be effectively a tie with a far left senator from a small New England state — dealt a jolting psychological blow to the Clinton campaign, leaving volunteers, donors and aides confused throughout the night, and then crestfallen. They had hoped that the former secretary of state would garner a decisive victory here and put to rest any doubts about her strength as a candidate.
You can see the Clinton blind spots on display. The “former secretary of state” isn’t merely elegant variation in drafting. The Clinton machine has been unwilling to see Sanders as more than an upstart, even as his gains in polling have been showing otherwise. They are invested in the SS Clinton: Hillary as national, indeed international figure for over two decades, versus Sanders as a pol from a the frosty hinterlands. And “far left” translates into “unsound” and “unable to get big corporate backing.”
In fact, as NC commentor Richard Kline pointed out in 2012, these supposed “far left” positions are in fact middle of the road. The elites in the US have managed to get away with governing well to the right of the center of political gravity in this country via election bait-and-switch (Obama being a particularly vivid case study) and adept messaging to make policies sound more average-voter-friendy than the really were. From his post, Progressively Losing:
….let’s dispense with several basic misconceptions regarding why progressives are presently so unsuccessful.
“Progressive goals are not popular.” Even with the systematically distorted polling data of the present, this is demonstrably untrue. Inexpensive health care, progressive taxation, educational scholarship funding, curtailment of foreign wars, environmental protection among others never fail to command majority support. It is difficult to think of a major progressive policy which commands less than a plurality. This situation is one reason for the lazy reliance upon electioneering by progressives, they know that their issues are popular, in principle at least. Rather childishly, they just want a show of hands then, as if that is what goes on really in elections.
Now one might wonder why Sanders has been able to overturn this sorry history of progressive (for want of a better term) failure. I don’t pretend to have a definitive answer, but these factors appear to go on the list:
In the words of the more famous Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Bill said that the most important responsibility of Democrats was to generate jobs. Obama blew that duty off, resulting in large-scale erosion of the Democratic seats in Congress, large of Blue Dog Democrats aligned closely with Obama. Sanders, as a dissident within the party, can effectively call out the party for failing to live up to its brand promise.
Media fragmentation. The old assumption that you can buy the presidency with a billion dollar of ad spending may no longer hold. News and information consumption is far more fragmented, which makes getting ad messages in front of a broad range of voters more challenging. And that’s likely to be even truer of young voters, who are likely to be less attached to mainstream media brands as validators than older voters.
The menu is not the meal.. As Lambert likes to say of Hillary, “The dogs won’t eat the dog food.” Let us face it: Sanders is not exactly a compelling politician. But he has an extremely compelling message, and he keeps hammering at it. By contrast, the implicit message of Team Hillary is that the public should trust her for her supposedly broad experience, and for women, for representing women’s interests. I’ve been put off by Hillary’s repeated references in the debates to “I have a plan…” and John Cassidy makes a broader observation along those lines:
Speaking on CNN as it got late, David Axelrod, President Obama’s former campaign manager, made an acute point. One of Hillary’s problems is that her campaign is largely about her—her experience, her electability, and her toughness. “I will keep doing what I have done my entire life,” she said in her non-victory speech. “I will keep standing up for you. I will keep fighting for you.” Sanders, on the other hand, rarely mentions himself in his speeches. His campaign is all about his message of taking America back from the billionaires. And, as Axelrod pointed out, it is often easier to inspire people, particularly young people, with an uplifting theme than with a résumé
And that resume, despite having lots of glitzy titles on it, has either no or negative accomplishment associated with these roles. Plus it’s hard to buy the notion that she will “keep standing up” for anyone other than her monied backers. And she’s not likeable. She projects as hard and cold. Sanders is not warm and fuzzy, but he’s at least sincere, so he beats Hillary in that category, save for voters who come from a social strata that predisposes them towards technocratic sheen.
Elitism and entitlement. Clinton is having trouble faking being a woman of the people. From the New York Times:
Mrs. Clinton re-entered politics last spring after four years as secretary of state, noticeably rusty after her time away from the trail. Although she improved as a retail politician over 10 months of campaigning, in the end, to many voters, she could appear detached, too shrouded in layers of staff and security.
On her trip to the Iowa State Fair in August, Mrs. Clinton’s staff and security team had mapped out a route so she could admire the prizewinning stalks of corn, see an exhibit on agriculture and pick up a pork-chop-on-a-stick before climbing into a black S.U.V. to catch a private flight to Martha’s Vineyard.
These aren’t the only off-putting incidents. Recall the widely-reported incident where she walked through a town with a big cordon around her? The resulting videos were of someone who didn’t want anywhere in her vicinity. Or how about the recent story in Iowa, where she showed up two hours late for a rally, gave a mere five minute canned speech, and wasn’t apologetic? Anyone on a campaign is going to have the occasional bad moment, but hers are far too frequent, particularly for someone who knows the Presidential campaign drill.
The movie The Big Short and the upheaval in the financial markets. The public is getting an in-its-face reminder that Wall Street wrecked the economy, got bailed out at public expense, and got away with it. Needless to say, Clinton is uncomfortably close to Wall Street.
Corruption. As lawyers like to say, res ipsa loquitur.
It’s also not a good sign for the supposedly professional Clinton campaign machine that they misread the state of play in Iowa badly enough to be convinced of a win. Or worse, was this entitlement syndrome preventing key staffers from presenting an accurate picture, meaning warnings? And the article points out that there were demands to demote “Robby Mook, her young data-driven campaign manager.” A spokesperson denied that any change was in the offing. But Mook appears to be in a shaky position, and mid-course changes in campaign staffing (or de facto changes by bringing more points of view into decision-making) often make matters worse rather than better by creating more inside-the-tent power struggles and making it harder to implement action plans.
The Clinton campaign tries to understand, or dangerously, rationalize, what happened:
The question the Clinton campaign confronts is whether the first two states are simply demographically unfriendly to Mrs. Clinton, as many analysts believe, or whether her lack of connection so far in Iowa and New Hampshire indicates a deeper shakiness underlying her candidacy.
As Li put it, “Yes, they were demographically unfriendly. They were people.”
More accurately, the Clinton camp is trying to see the failure as a “white state” issue, when the real story is a split by age group, with an unheard of 60+ point advantage to Sanders in the under 29 year old group and the preferences shifting in close to linear manner among older age cohorts. And quelle horreur, Sanders made inroads in Iowa among Hispanics.
And the supposedly sure-footed Bill is apparently unable to see that Hillary’s problem is a policy and credibility problem, no doubt at least in part because he was the architect of the policy changes that sold out the middle class, policies he has continued to represent to great personal profit at the Clinton Foundation. Again from the New York Times article:
Former President Clinton had been among those who have attributed his wife’s poor performance more to her campaign’s muddled strategy and lack of a clear message than to Mrs. Clinton’s own failings.
This is nonsense. The problems with Hillary’s branding are very much problems with Bill’s branding: that of having implemented pro-finance, pro-multinational policies that (with the help of the Internet tail wind) produced the economic equivalent of a sugar high and left the middle class with a case of diabetes. The “muddled messaging” results from Sanders having dented the inevitability myth, forcing Hillary to get out of tissue paper and out in the open, and discuss policy positions, where her barmy claim that she wants to be a President for everyone is not holding up to the light of day. The increased awareness of income inequality, a point Sanders pounds relentlessly, means you can’t credibly be a candidate for the 1%, particularly the 0.1%, and everyone else.
In fact, Brand Clinton is not what is used to be:
Mr. Sanders drew three times as many people as Mr. Clinton as the two men held dueling rallies last Wednesday night.
Mind you, this isn’t even the full list of Hillary’s shortcomings. The article finishes with this one:
Some 47 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said that they felt Mrs. Clinton said what voters wanted to hear, rather than what she believed. Sixty-two percent said they believed Mr. Sanders said what he thought, according to a New York Times-CBS poll released Nov. 12.
If anything, the picture is worse than that. Clinton’s favorability ratings have kept falling the more she has campaigned. Gallup released on the eve of the Iowa caucus that Sanders had just moved in front of her in terms of net favorability among Democrats. And many polls show that Sanders outdoes Hillary among independents.
Now with all of that said, the Clintons hope to turn things around in Nevada (another caucus state) and most important, South Carolina, which will supposedly demonstrate that black (and by extension, other minority voters) represent her firewall. But some Democrats are starting to question that too:
“Yes, they have a firewall, but how much asbestos is really in that firewall?” asked Robert Shrum, a strategist for Democratic presidential candidates, including Al Gore, Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry. “Do people start to take a second look?”
Indeed, as of about two weeks ago, Clinton’s approval ratings among black voters in South Carolina had fallen from 79% to 54%. As of then, Sanders had not turned this decline into conversions to his campaign, but small focus groups suggest those voters are receptive to his message. So South Carolina could be more in play than it appears on the surface.
However, Clinton still has two huge advantages that this article fails to mention. The first is the control that she has obtained over the Democratic party apparatus. She has a lock on the superdelegates unless Sanders makes big inroads quickly and undermines her legitimacy as a candidate. The second is that the Clintons are famously ruthless. Obama has been charged in two independently produced movies of stealing the Texas caucus. It’s not hard to imagine the Clintons, if they started to feel desperate, are capable of doing that and more.
So while Sanders has done a fabulous job of exceeding expectations in going from a quixotic outsider to a real contender, he still has an uphill battle before him. One can only hope that the more Hillary is forced to show her true colors as a result of the unexpected Sanders challenge, the more voters realize that even more than most politicians, she is out only for herself.