Hil­lary Clin­ton’s an­ti­sep­tic cam­paign

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

WASH­ING­TON — “What we are see­ing is post-pur­chase cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance,” a well-con­nected for­mer Demo­cratic of­fi­cial told me. Hil­lary Clin­ton has ef­fec­tively se­cured her party’s nom­i­na­tion, in part through an em­brace by su­perdel­e­gates who demon­strate that the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment is far more priv­i­leged than its tooth­less, gouty Repub­li­can coun­ter­part.

But then, in­stead of con­sol­i­da­tion, hu­mil­i­a­tion.

Clin­ton has lost six out of the last seven Demo­cratic con­tests. Her op­po­nent Bernie San­ders — a so­cial­ist and only re­cently a Demo­crat — has ex­ceeded her fundrais­ing to­tals for the last three months. Some of Clin­ton’s losses have been blowouts, like her 46-point de­feat in the Wash­ing­ton cau­cus. In the Wis­con­sin pri­mary, San­ders won 82 per­cent of vot­ers un­der 30, and 83 per­cent of those who most value the qual­ity of hon­esty in a can­di­date. He nar­rowly beat Clin­ton among women, and won in­de­pen­dents by 40 points.

And this out­pour­ing of sup­port for San­ders has come for a can­di­date who has all but lost. At least in this uni­verse. Clin­ton only needs one-third of the re­main­ing Demo­cratic del­e­gates to secure the nom­i­na­tion, in elec­toral ter­ri­tory that grows more fa­vor­able.

Clin­ton is in­evitable. But this is in­evitabil­ity with­out af­fec­tion — the in­evitabil­ity of a glacier, not a move­ment.

The coun­ter­fac­tu­als, in this case, are in­struc­tive. If the field of Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates had been broader — in­clud­ing, say, Joe Bi­den, John Kerry and Jerry Brown — San­ders might be in Don­ald Trump’s sit­u­a­tion, lead­ing for the nom­i­na­tion with a strong plu­ral­ity. If the San­ders slot had been filled by a more electable pro­gres­sive — say, El­iz­a­beth War­ren — Clin­ton would be toast.

Why is an im­pec­ca­bly qual­i­fied can­di­date who is win­ning her party’s nom­i­na­tion so po­lit­i­cally fee­ble? Some of this is just raw po­lit­i­cal skills, or the lack of them. Clin­ton — who is en­gag­ing and self-dep­re­cat­ing in small groups — does not trans­late well to a big rally set­ting. Her at­tempts at in­ten­sity get mixed re­views.

“She is out of her el­e­ment,” the for­mer Demo­cratic of­fi­cial told me. “But lurk­ing un­der­neath these con­cerns are ques­tions: What is she re­ally about? What is her core? What is she will­ing to fight for? So far, this is an an­ti­sep­tic cam­paign.”

For ev­i­dence, let’s go to Clin­ton’s de­scrip­tions of her own cause. Re­cently on “Morn­ing Joe,” she sum­ma­rized her ap­peal: “I’ve been in the trenches a long time.” That is quite a slo­gan to win over the young­sters. Else­where she said: “I think that should be the way peo­ple judge who the next pres­i­dent they want to see in the Oval Of­fice is, be­cause at the end of the day, pro­duc­ing re­sults is re­ally what it’s all about.” This is a purely in­stru­men­tal de­scrip­tion. Lawn mow­ers pro­duce re­sults. Drain clean­ers pro­duce re­sults. A preacher with that sense of mis­sion would have an empty col­lec­tion plate.

The ab­sence of a clear mis­sion raises ques­tions about Clin­ton’s mo­tiva- tions. Her left­ward tack on a va­ri­ety of is­sues — op­pos­ing the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, op­pos­ing the Key­stone XL pipe­line, sup­port­ing the breakup of the big banks — has re­moved the last hints of 1990s New Demo­crat Clin­ton­ism, at least for the moment. She seems to be run­ning as a can­di­date who hap­pens to have all of Barack Obama’s views (ex­cept, per­haps, on Syria). What, other than the de­sire for power in her own ex­pe­ri­enced hands, ex­plains her po­lit­i­cal re­lent­less­ness?

This is the con­text in which 57 per­cent of Amer­i­cans, in a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC News poll, do not judge Clin­ton to be hon­est and trust­wor­thy. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t leave her alone with the cash drawer. Rather, this rep­re­sents a be­lief that the main cause of the Clin­tons is the Clin- tons them­selves, and that a va­ri­ety of rules get bent in ser­vice to that cause. It is some­times claimed that Hil­lary Clin­ton is a Teflon fig­ure; that noth­ing — not her email trou­bles, not her foun­da­tion trou­bles, not her Beng­hazi trou­bles, not her FBI trou­bles — sticks to her. This is true if it means that no sin­gle scan­dal has knocked her out of the race. But there has been a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect — a grad­ual ox­i­da­tion that has left a layer of rust.

For the pur­poses of this elec­tion, none of this is likely to mat­ter. Repub­li­cans seem ut­terly de­ter­mined to lose a per­fectly winnable race. But it is not a small thing, or a good thing, that Amer­i­cans seem pre­pared to elect a pres­i­dent they do not trust.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.

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