DNC 2016: The stakes are stratospheric as Hillary Clinton seeks to repair brand at Democratic Convention

No longer a super-star, Hillary Clinton finds herself out of step with an electorate suspicious of the establishment

David Usborne
Philadelphia
Monday 25 July 2016 19:13 BST
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Hillary Clinton addressing supporters in North Carolina on Monday
Hillary Clinton addressing supporters in North Carolina on Monday (Getty)

A beaming Hillary Clinton briefly took the reporter’s hand and declared herself over the moon. “It’s wonderful,” she said of the adoring scene unfolding around her. “It’s a lot of people!”

This was a Manhattan bookshop two years ago when thousands had come to snag a signed copy of her then new book, Hard Choices, and glimpse her in the flesh. Ready for Hillary stickers abounded. Her legion fans had no doubt she would run and would win the Democratic Party nomination easily. The leap from there to the Oval Office would surely also be a cinch.

What went wrong? She won the nomination and will come to the party’s national convention in Philadelphia on Thursday formally to accept it. But just about nothing else went to plan. The then superstar now finds herself running for president with the worst favourability ratings of any candidate in history except for one. That - very fortunately for her - is Donald Trump.

A Washington Post poll this month showed that 54 per cent of all Americans have an unfavourable view of the former first lady, of whom 44 per cent hold a “strongly unfavourable” view. The numbers were even worse when registered voters are asked the same question.

It has been a slow but relentless crumbling of public esteem for Ms Clinton that began the moment she declared in April last year and set out in a plain minivan from her New York home to Iowa to engage in a much derided series of ‘cozy chats’ with voters, which came off as phony if only because any sense of intimacy was belied by the camera crews crowded behind her.

Now, this week, she and her campaign have a chance to arrest, even reverse, the process before political rigor mortis sets in. If they succeed, Ms Clinton may again find herself in something like the same place she occupied back in that bookshop, confident in her own ability to conquer all foes. If they fail, it won’t be her stepping into the Oval Office next January. It will be Mr Trump.

Hillary Clinton signing copies of her memoir in New York in 2014
Hillary Clinton signing copies of her memoir in New York in 2014 (Reuters)

Several things have combined to put Ms Clinton and the Democrats in so perilous a pass. Her campaign was shadowed from the very start with questions about her use of a private email server while Secretary of State and the conclusion last month by the FBI that while she broke no laws she had been “extremely careless” in her handling of sometimes sensitive information.

She also faced a challenger in Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont whose success she and her campaign never anticipated. With his far-left message (by the standards of normal US political fare), the self-declared Democratic socialist drew far bigger rallies that she ever did and ended up winning the primaries of 21 states.

Ms Clinton was discombobulated by an electoral landscape far different from the one her husband, Bill Clinton, faced when he twice won the presidency in the 1990s and even when she was elected US Senator the decade after. Mr Sanders tapped into those large swathes of voters who had grown angry at the power and wealth of America’s chosen few, otherwise called the one per cent.

The problem Ms Clinton repeatedly bumped into, particularly among young voters who overwhelming sided with Mr Sanders - including women under 35 of age - is that for all her protesting that her career has been dedicated to fighting the forces of the status quo, she seems to embody it. She is also seen as being a member of the 1 per cent club, an impression Mr Sanders helped hammer home by reminding voters of her paid speeches for Goldman Sachs.

Why is the Democratic National Convention so important?

On Monday night, Mr Sanders was to exhort his supporters to rally behind Ms Clinton. That he had agreed, after weeks of strategic hesitation to ensure his views were taken into account in the party platform, to do was vital for Camp Clinton. But the wounds were ripped open on the convention’s very eve when leaked emails showed how the Democratic National Committee, DNC, had tried to undermine Mr Sanders’ campaign. An awkward news cycle turned into fully-fledged catastrophe as Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to step down as DNC chair.

Thus the first challenge for the convention remains to convince the progressive and liberal wing of the Party that Ms Clinton is worthy of their love. It is a heavy lift that will be left in part to Ms Clinton herself on Thursday and also Senator Elizabeth Warren who, like Mr Sanders, was set to deliver a keynote speech on Monday.

The candidate and the party, however, must reach an audience beyond the few thousand delegates in the hall or even the equally large numbers of disgruntled protestors who will to clog the streets of the city all week with demonstrations, some of which could get noisy. Conventions are ultimately not about pepping up the party. They are about swaying the country as a whole.

Above all it will be an exercise in re-education of who Ms Clinton really is - a fighter for the rights of the downtrodden and disadvantaged and the dispossessed, from women to blacks who feel threatened by police brutality. It will be attempted both with big keynotes, including from Michelle Obama on Monday night, and a relentless parade of gauzy videos re-telling her story.

Even this will not be easy. The campaign has a dilemma. On the one hand, it will try to present Ms Clinton as the candidate who will offer continuity and stability at a time when the country, while beset by doubt and by the recent eruptions of violence, whether terrorist in nature or linked to the spasms of violence perpetrated by or against the police, is at least in a state of relative economic and social stability. To that end, there will be an unstinting effort to present Ms Clinton as being the natural inheritor of the Obama era. But how does it do that while also make her seem fresh and different?

If all else fails, the Democrats have, as it were, their Trump card. If Ms Clinton has struggled, in comparison to the Republican nominee to articulate a single and easily understandable message about what her candidacy is about, she at least has this: she is not Donald Trump.

New polls suggest that, in spite of its raggedness, the Republican Convention in Cleveland last week has given a sizable bump for Mr Trump. Ms Clinton urgently needs this week’s confab in Philadelphia to do the same for her. But even if it goes as smoothly as it possibly can - and it has hardly begun in the manner it was supposed to - she will never emerge as the almost untouchable superstar that she seemed to be all those months ago in a bookshop in Manhattan.

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