Why Hillary Clinton shouldn't gloat over the Republicans just yet

It's hard to even know what Clinton really stands for. Put bluntly, she's simply not a very good candidate

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The Independent Online

You’re streets ahead of your closest rival according to national polls. You have a glittering résumé, shedloads of cash and endorsements – not to mention the tide of history at your back. Isn’t it high time the US joined most of the rest of the developed world and elected a woman president?

So why on earth did Hillary Clinton this week launch her first round of television campaign advertisements in Iowa and New Hampshire, in the dog days of summer, at a moment when what little attention ordinary punters are paying to politics is devoted to the Republicans and Donald Trump?

On Thursday, the GOP candidates assemble for their first debate of the 2016 presidential season. Clinton is their common foe, but their top priority will be to demonstrate that a bombastic, relentlessly self-promoting property mogul is not the key that unlocks the White House door, after eight years of the detested President Obama.

Clinton nevertheless has her own problems. Dig deeper into the polls, and you find that Bernie Sanders, the left-wing senator from Vermont who has emerged as the Democratic anti-Hillary, is eating into her lead in the states that kick off the primary season next February.

No longer, according to those same polls, does she comfortably see off putative Republican opponents in places like Virginia, Florida and Ohio – key swing states in a general election – as she did a couple of months ago. To top it all, Vice-President Joe Biden, potentially her one heavyweight challenger for the party’s nomination, is again considering a run, in the belief that Clinton is showing real signs of political frailty.

Part of the trouble is that she is simply not a very good candidate. The offstage Clinton has a captivating laugh and a terrific sense of humour. But this human touch gets lost on the campaign trail. All too easily she comes across as joyless and calculating.

What successful politician, you may ask, doesn’t appear calculating? Well, her husband for one; no one has ever done premeditated spontaneity like Bill Clinton. Watch the pair perform at the same event and the contrast in the ability to connect is almost embarrassing.

There are deeper reasons for this summer of discontent with Clinton. There is the matter of her age. Yes, both Biden and Sanders are even more ancient, but she would be 69 on inauguration day 2017 – older than any incoming president bar Ronald Reagan. Presidential elections are about the future. Reagan had a vision for the future, but Republicans will ceaselessly underline that Clinton is a creature from the past – a fixture of top-level national politics for almost a quarter of a century, with nothing more to offer.


And what precisely is her vision? Even now it's hard to know what Clinton really stands for. In keeping with her new family status, her advertisements seek to foster a caring, grandmotherly image. Her overriding concern, they make clear, is the plight of the “99 per cent”, shorthand for an American middle class that has taken a beating over the past two decades. But – thanks both to old contacts and vast fees from corporate speeches – the Clintons themselves are now part of the 1 per cent. They move in its gilded circle as if to the manner born.

Under pressure from Sanders, an unvarnished conviction politician who is drawing massive crowds with his excoriations of Wall Street and advocacy of a single-payer healthcare system, Clinton has moved to the left. But how far, and for how long? A candidate long cosy with high finance now advocates a crackdown on Wall Street (sort of). She’s silent on the merits of the mooted Asian trade pact, and of the pipeline to bring oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Up to a point you can understand why. Support for the former would upset the unions who maintain that trade deals cost millions of American jobs. Support for the latter would enrage environmentalists. No candidate wants to alienate key party constituencies; hence the eternal pattern of US presidential elections, as a candidate tacks left (or right, in the case of Republicans) to satisfy the activists who vote in primaries and then, the nomination secured, scurries back to the centre to win over independents in the general election.

But in Clinton’s case, equivocacy feeds into another weakness. Many voters simply do not trust her. The reasons are manifold: her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State, in breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law; the opaque finances of the family’s philanthropic Clinton Foundation and allegations of conflicts of interest. Who wants a re-run of the wearying Clinton psychodramas of the 1990s?

Add to that a mutually suspicious and fraught relationship with the media – not just the “vast right-wing conspiracy” against which she railed when the Monica Lewinsky affair buffeted the White House, but now mainstream, predominantly liberal-leaning outlets as well (not least The New York Times) – and you have all the ingredients for a testy and defensive campaign.

Trust, of course, is not essential in winning the presidency. Exhibit A is Bill Clinton himself, elected in 1992 despite allegations of draft-dodging and documented philandering. But that Clinton, young and empathetic, promised the country a new future after 12 years of Republican rule, and Americans set their doubts aside. Whether they will do again for his wife is another matter.

None of this means Clinton will not secure the nomination. A Sanders win is all but inconceivable, but the shattering of that last glass ceiling? It could yet happen. Just don’t bank on it.