I keep waiting for an uptick in Hillary Clinton’s standing and, indeed, campaign. That Bernie Sanders nearly matched her fund raising in the recent quarter only underscores the “frontrunner’s” (and our) problematic prospects for success next November. By the way, I get solicitation emails from Bernie daily, none from Clinton. Reports of attempts to reposition and humanize herself are ominously reminiscent of Al Gore’s wardrobe adjustments in 2000. They didn’t alter our perception of him as being wankishly wooden and distant; only solidified it. While Gore still edged Bush out in the national popular vote, his thin margin enabled Florida and what followed. We paid a high price.
There is a difference here of course. Gore’s big problems came in the General; Clinton’s face her (and us) in the still early primary season. If she isn’t able to overcome these challenges, there is still time for an alternative. Most of the negative noise around her candidacy is focused on the still mystifying email fiasco. But I think focusing on that is to ignore her much more fundamental problem. Interestingly, it’s one that we’re seeing played out most dramatically in the Republican contest and only recently being given attention on the Democratic side. As it happens, it is precisely the same issue that proved Hillary’s undoing in 2008 — dissatisfaction with the ruling political class. Obama represented something different. She tried to undermine his candidacy by stressing his inexperience failing to understand that not being from the tried and true was exactly what made him so attractive.
The last six plus years should tell us that talking change and making change are two entirely different things. It turns out that presidents — all presidents — are more captives of the Oval Office than its masters. The ship of state is bulky and complex, more cumbersome than nimble. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get one’s hands on the tiller to say nothing of turning the vessel’s direction to any appreciable degree. Obama calls democracy “messy”, but that’s a gross understatement, especially in our time. However one assesses his presidency — I view it very positively — we continue to find ourselves more frustrated than satisfied. For Republicans that feeling may be intensified because they don’t hold the White House, but that’s an elusion. Holding office, as Obama himself has discovered, is not the issue, not enough. That said, and elusion notwithstanding, there is great frustration across the land, and its ultimately pan-partisan.
Hillary Clinton’s problem is not her use of emails. It’s not stylistic or likability. It certainly isn’t a lack of capability or qualifications for office — few on either side can match hers. More than anything, it’s her last name, not so much Clinton per se but as a marker for the established and failed status quo. Like Jeb Bush she doesn’t only carry the name burden, but more the feeling of déjà vu — “been there, done that”. Regardless of the Clinton/Bush records and how they are perceived, we simply don’t want a replay, a repeat of the past. Reports that, concerned for her situation, Bill is getting more involved only reinforces that feeling. Hillary’s fundamental problem is that, with all the good that she brings to the table, she may simply be the wrong candidate for the time. In any event, she may be perceived so, which in politics is all that matters.
Bernie Sanders’ appeal thus far sends a clear message. An unlikely challenger for reasons I’ve discussed in earlier posts, his candidacy nonetheless screams, “we’ve had enough”. Does that translate, whoever wins, into the potential of a substantively different kind of presidency post 2016? Don’t count on it. Again, consider Obama’s tenure. But that may be irrelevant. We the people are feeling powerless and want to stir things around, turn them upside down. We may not be thinking objectively — who really is the most qualified and supports policies with the greatest chance of success. In this cycle, it’s the visceral that counts — just throw the bums out. That’s what drove the Tea’s and continues to give them so much leverage in their own party. Their rightist ideology may represent the fringe, be seen to some of us as abhorrent, but their frustration is broadly shared.
Bernie Sanders is not the solution. Given what I’m saying, much as I like him, neither is Joe Biden. The resultant vacuum is a huge problem for Democrats, and I think for the country. At the moment, Martin O’Malley hasn’t made even a first impression, which suggests he may not be right either, or up to the task. We need someone else, someone who fits the time and, in my view, we absolutely need a woman. It’s long overdue to break through that glass ceiling, not to mention have someone who, in their person, represents the majority of our citizens. Of course it has to be the right woman, a qualified leader. At the moment, the only individual who fits that profile may be Elizabeth Warren. She has said no, but we can’t accept that answer. We need and real alternative. We need one now.
Warren is in the senate, but remains a new face, apart from the establishment that Americans are resisting. She sees income inequality as the priority issue it is, understanding that many of our corporations (not only banks) have become far too big and not only because they pose great risk in failure. Perhaps most compelling is that Warren is a serious person, the right candidate for serious complex times. Sloganizing and trite showmanship won’t cut it in the real world. Despite all the simplistic tough talk from Republican candidates — Carly Fiorina’s eagerness to deploy our troops and arms everywhere makes John McCain look like a pacifist — Obama has read us correctly. We have no stomach for boots on the ground interventions. But remote and surrogate warfare is, like change, easier said than done. Drones pose huge moral issues and thus far our “training” of locals to fight their own battles has met with little success. We look at all that, critique the failed execution, but don’t seriously or objectively address its implications for our role in the world. I think we’re afraid of what such a discussion would reveal and where it might lead.
It’s hard the envy the next president and at times truly frightening to think of who might end up in that job. But there is little doubt that we need the right person — right also for our time. We need someone who can seriously lead us forward and I don’t yet see that person on the campaign trail. Elizabeth Warren might be the one, and we can only hope she is thinking about it and reconsidering a run.