The Hillary Clinton campaign is in the throes of a crisis. What started out looking like a ruthless juggernaut is beginning to look more like wheezing jalopy. Polls show here getting trounced by Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire and she has seen her healthy lead in Iowa shrink until it is within the margin of error. Sanders, who was supposed to be on a quixotic campaign that would melt under the intense sun-like glare of Hillary Clinton, is turning into a real threat.
For a while, Hillary was content to ignore Sanders. Debbie Wasserman Schultz had cleared the decks of really big name potential challengers. Wasserman Schultz also scheduled the Democrat primary debates so a minimal number of people would see her. Sanders apparently didn't get the memo. As he gained on Clinton, Hillary Clinton called on Chelsea Clinton to at as an attack shih-tzu. And the Clinton campaign has been hitting Sanders on his support for a single-payer health system. This isn't going down well with the Democrat base. Last night on Rachel Maddow's little show on MSNBC she took Hillary to task for her attacks on Sanders:
“Your campaign, in my estimation, set its hair on fire a little bit,” Maddow told Clinton, assessing the decision to cast Sanders’ latest campaign ad as his first negative ad of the campaign to be a bit of a reach with only days to go before the first votes of the cycle.
“Now, I’ve seen the ad that you’re referring to. Honestly, it is not much of an attack,” Maddow argued, noting that the Sanders ad never mentions Clinton by name.
“It says there’s two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street … It’s not something over the top that means that he’s now this personal attacker in the campaign,” she explained.
“Your campaign is essentially fighting with him in a way now that is casting aspersions on his character, calling him dishonest,” Maddow charged.
“Sanders is basically doing better than you with the same groups that powered President Obama’s victory in Iowa in 2008, mainly young people, first-time caucus goers and Independents,” she continued. “[D]on’t you need to change what you’re doing to try to crack the code of those kinds of voters?”
This is the "attack ad" that Maddow referred to:
Other liberal media have made a similar observation:
This is not a battle of ideas; it’s an investment in cynicism. And it's hard to avoid a few ugly conclusions. Clinton has not learned from the mistakes of 2008. She does not understand the Democratic Party's base. She does not respect the activists and intellectuals who have fought to establish the party's economic policy agenda over the past 50 years. And she thinks voters in early primary states are dumb enough to fall for obvious dishonesty, just because they already like her.
The truth is that Clinton has a solid set of prescriptives on both health care and shadow banking. But here's a hard truth: No Democratic president is going to be able to enact any version of his or her policy agenda with a Republican Congress. Either Sanders or Clinton will be playing defense on Obama's legacy for at least one term in office. There is almost no chance of actual liberal legislating before 2020.
The Democratic primary is two things. One, an authenticity contest, in which Clinton and Sanders try to show die-hard Democrats that they are really, really like them -- even though both are career politicians. Two, a statement of the party's purpose. Here is the dream, even if it can't be enacted anytime soon.
Clinton's recent domestic policy offensive fails on both fronts. Nobody really believes that a woman who served on the board of Walmart when her husband was governor of Arkansas and who made millions of dollars giving speeches to big banks and private equity firms is a populist Democrat. And nobody really believes that a woman who previously advocated for single-payer now thinks it will destroy Medicare. Party activists also don't believe that her incrementalism is more legislatively plausible, because no actual Democratic efforts are going to be possible for years to come.
But Democrats like Clinton because she has been fighting outrageous Republican attacks for more than 20 years. She's still got it (see: Benghazi hearings), and it's Democratic primary gold (see: post-Benghazi-hearing polls). That's Clinton's best argument for the nomination. Smearing policy proposals that Democrats have spent years fighting for? Not so much.
And, as we are seeing, her ability to use Benghazi as a code word for "partisan witch hunt" (or in Hillary's case, it is actually a "witch found") is being damaged by the newly released film on those events.
As Hillary faces more pressure by Sanders, she will have to increase the frequency, volume, and scope of her attacks. This, in turn, is going to alienate more and more of the people who should be allied with Clinton. It is hard to see how this works out well for Hillary.