Over the past few days an awful lot of bad news about and for Hillary Clinton has come out. First the polls: In New Hampshire, she may well be behind Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders. CNN and Fox polls of Democratic primary voters, released within the past few days show her support below 50% for the first time in this election cycle, including in must-win states Pennsylvania and Ohio. In two short weeks, Sanders halved her 36% lead nationally over him.
Breakdowns of the national polls document that Clinton’s support among women has waned more than it has among men over the past month. National Nurses United – a union which comprises 90% women – has endorsed Sanders lending further support for the notion that Clinton’s firewall of Democratic women may be starting to melt. It is true that the 1.8 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is also predominantly female, supports Clinton in this election cycle just as it did in 2008 when it sided with her over Barack Obama. But it is also true that AFT’s Randi Weingarten is a longtime Clinton ally who sits on the Board of the Pro-Clinton PAC Priorities USA.
Highly publicized confrontations, orchestrated by #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) in Phoenix and Seattle, with Bernie Sanders do not appear to have blunted his momentum. Indeed, video of the nearly 73-year old Sanders gamely offering to shake hands with two young women in Seattle who proceeded to shout him off the podium may well help his cause in the long run.
Moreover, it now appears that BLM’s most prominent organizer and media promoter Shaun King, who has criticized Sanders aggressively at DailyKos, may be a white man who has been passing as bi-racial. Assuming this is true, the legitimacy of King’s and, by extension BLM’s attacks on Sanders must be questioned. [Correction – King has explained that the white man identified as his father on his birth certificate is not the man he believes is his biological father who was, King says, a light-skinned African-American man.]
In fact, Sanders would appear to have a significant potential upside with people of color, who are least likely to be familiar with him and his record. He has a long and impressive history of championing civil rights, economic justice for all Americans, and, before Clinton did, calling for an end to abusive police practices.
By contrast, Clinton’s support among blacks may have crested. Clinton received positive grades from some supporters for her sit-down with BLM activists and influential New York Times and columnist Charles Blow acknowledged she was “agile and evasive”. Ultimately though, he called her refusal to acknowledge “her and her husband’s role in giving America the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate” “stunning”, “telling”, and “vexing”.
African-Americans tend to be more skeptical than other Americans of the good faith of Israel’s leaders and more angry about that country’s periodic military spasms against the Palestinian people. For nearly thirty years, Sanders has criticized Israeli hardliners and justified his endorsement of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential bid in 1988 by noting Jackson’s support for Palestinian self-determination. Over the past year, he has been upfront in his opposition to Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza. Again, as African-Americans become more familiar with Sanders, many are likely to support him.
Clinton’s woes are also apparent in ongoing news about her email practices at the State Department which at a minimum violated the applicable Federal regulation and which may be responsible for her recent drop in the polls. Surveying the political landscape two days ago, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza concluded “maybe Hillary Clinton just isn’t a very good candidate”.
This past Monday Guardian columnist Mary Dejevsky, who calls herself a Clinton “fan”, urged the candidate to “bow out with grace” because the enormous “baggage” she carries would make it impossible for her to govern effectively if she were to prevail in the general election. Dejevsky contends that Clinton’s divisiveness is “not primarily because she is a woman”.
I am not a Clinton fan. I hope she does withdraw and endorse Bernie Sanders. Nevertheless, from her perspective, none of the above, should be enough to cause her to stop a campaign which retains formidable advantages.
But Clinton faces a more daunting problem than falling but still very robust poll numbers, a doubtful commitment to liberal causes, and email peccadilloes. Ultimately, her election strategy is mostly the same as the one that worked so well for her husband – present a relatively, but not outrageously, progressive persona on social issues coupled with a neo-liberal economic agenda.
Such an approach worked well for Bill for several reasons. The people most attracted to his apparently socially progressive stance on issues like gays in the military and choice were highly educated upper middle-class professionals – the kind of people who could and did contribute significantly to both of his Presidential campaigns.
Clinton was also helped in 1992 by the fact that George H.W. Bush had broken his promise not to enact new taxes. This meant that the Republican did not have a lock on top earners concerned solely with after-tax income. Although Clinton did push through a hike in the top marginal tax rate in 1993, he also signed NAFTA, and pushed through welfare reform in his first term, as he had promised to do. This record meant that he could count on considerable support from relatively large elements of the 1%.
Clinton’s faux-populism should have harmed his status with working-class voters and it probably did to some extent. But his personal charm won over many “Bubbas” and “Bubbettes”. Moreover, organized labor was by the early and mid-90s in very difficult straits and reasonably viewed Clinton’s Republican opponents as worse than he was on labor issues.
The political landscape has shifted tectonically since the mid-90s. Some one-percenters are so rich that they can single-handedly finance campaigns. Those who are doing so are united against Clinton and are making it very difficult for her to garner the funds she needs to compete. Sanders who relies on word-of-mouth support and small contributions does not have to worry about attracting or alienating wealthy donors.
To raise sufficient money from the merely super-rich, as opposed to the uber-rich, Clinton must tailor her message at least somewhat to their interests. But, in order to appeal to Democratic primary voters, Clinton must keep her distance from the upper crust. In the age of internet, any wobbles towards corporatism will be trumpeted loud and clear. It is possible a politician as skillful and charming as Bill might have been able to square this circle, but traditional Democrats Americans find Hillary’s personality less compelling.
Is there a way out for Hillary? It’s hard to see it. Her long history of cozying up to moneyed and corporate interests has not led to overwhelming financial support from them but it has led to fragmented support for her from the labor movement. Some liberal activists perceive her moves to the left as feints or insincere. On the other hand, she cannot move right without losing the still very strong support she has from second-wave feminists.
Hillary may still win. On Monday, Nate Silver pegged her chances of winning the Democratic nomination at 85%. But, her poll numbers keep falling, most Americans view her negatively. She is boxed in politically and is facing legitimate questions about her email practices at the State Department. It’s definitely time for her to look back on an extraordinarily productive and successful public life with satisfaction and to consider whether she can now best serve America by supporting a less compromised Democratic candidate for President.