Commentary: What’s Wrong With The Clinton Campaign And How To Fix It

Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton spoke to supporters after losing to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton spoke to supporters after losing to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Fresh from a Denver Broncos-style pummeling by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton’s campaign needs to rethink its message. The fatal flaw may be in the candidate herself, but since she can’t be replaced, let’s look at how she can reconstruct her arguments.

The first mistake — and it persists to this day — is making this a battle of credentials. As many of her supporters have correctly pointed out, she may be the most qualified person to run for president. Sanders is, by many accounts, a loner, a man on a mission with no time for doubters (who has shown contempt to both Democrats and Republicans). Regardless, this is diminished by voters’ general contempt for what happens or doesn’t happen in Washington.

She has other accomplishments — in children’s health, freedom of choice on abortion, improved child care and civil rights — and when she cites them, she gets fired up, in ways that reveal her pride. She showed some of that fire in her concession speech Tuesday night — perhaps a sign of messages to come?

What she’s best known for, however, is her attempt to pass universal health care coverage, which she barely mentions, except to allude to the “scars” she has to prove how the Republicans have been beating up on her for decades. Thanks for reminding us, but why is that a reason to vote for you?

While she’s eagerly taken Sanders’ bait on who’s more liberal (or “progressive”), she’s failed to tell voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and America what she wants to do for them if elected president. Instead, in response to Sanders demands for sweeping changes, she offers what — someone wisecracked to New York Times columnist Charles Blow — amounts to “I have ‘Half a Dream.’ ”

Her biggest problem is her belief that she can only call for things that she thinks will pass or have a fighting chance with a recalcitrant Republican Congress. Asked at their most recent debate if she and Sanders have standards (litmus tests) for potential Supreme Court appointments, Bernie quickly said that they’d have to be for repealing the special interest spending spree launched under the Citizens United decision. Hillary hemmed and hawed, as you could practically hear the wheels turning in her head, as she thought about This One or That One — would he or she get confirmed by the U.S. Senate, now controlled by the GOP. Finally she said, “I have a bunch of litmus tests because the next president could get as many as three appointments.”

I’ve written before that Sanders speaks in blunt, bold language about what’s wrong (Wall Street greed, corrupting special interests and tax-dodging millionaires), and how to fix it (a revolution with no particular explanations for how protesters and Twitter feeds would move Congress).

Meanwhile, Clinton offers carefully crafted program ideas, intellectually honest answers, and a realistic sense of what will fly in Washington. It’s only recently that she’s begun to point a finger at Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the notorious Koch brothers and for some reason Johnson Controls, which used a trick called “inversion” to pay zero taxes. What the hell is inversion and what the hell does Johnson control?

While it’s obvious that Sanders knows or cares little about foreign affairs or military matters, Clinton has allowed the campaign to be waged solely on domestic issues: minimum wage, pay inequity, tax fairness, corporate influence in Washington. Perhaps she’s afraid of Benghazi, but she needs to play offense against Sanders who makes a vote to go to war in Iraq as the sole difference between them. North Korea, the Iran trade deal, Chinese adventurism, Russian incursions in Ukraine and Syria are all serious matters that are largely ignored in Democratic debates, while Republicans talk about them endlessly to attack President Obama.

The next two states, South Carolina and Nevada, are expected to be friendlier to Clinton because they have politically significant non-white populations. This may be one of the few advantages she gets from her marriage. Bill Clinton remains wildly popular in the African-American community and favorably regarded among Latinos. But that demographic advantage makes South Carolina (and possibly Nevada) must-wins for her.

On March 1, 11 states — including Vermont, Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota, and a slew of southern states — will hold primaries and caucuses. The sheer number of contests (worth 960 Democratic delegates) should work to her advantage because of her wider political support, broader name recognition and meatier knowledge of foreign and military policy. If she loses a majority of the next dozen or so states, her bid to become the first woman president will evaporate. And the first socialist could become the Democratic nominee.

Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.

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