Washington DC – While Donald Trump has shot across the summer political sky like a meteor, the more important story of the season has gone less remarked upon: the surprising difficulties of Hillary Clinton.
The odds-on favourite (again) for the presidency has run into a series of problems, culminating in the self-inflicted wound of the scandal surrounding her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. While still the frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination, the sense that Clinton will easily waltz into the White House has been upended.
Her campaign’s tone-deaf slogan, “Ready for Hillary,” provides the central clue as to what has gone wrong. It conjures up notions of entitlement – it is high time America got with the programme, accepting that it is Mrs Clinton’s rightful turn to ascend to the presidency – that just don’t sit well in the Republic of Thomas Jefferson.
In a presidential contest that began with yet another Bush and yet another Clinton as frontrunners, the US seems dissatisfied with accepting that it is yet another oligarchy.
This yearning for change explains the summer ascent of Trump on the right and avowed socialist senator Bernie Sanders on the left. While neither will win, they are the first salvoes in the war to find a viable candidate who is not part of the old caste.
For the bald fact remains that Clinton is just not that good at running for office. Despite her undoubted competence, ferocious work ethic, and mastery of the issues, she is a pale shadow of her husband on the campaign trail, who was an electoral colossus.
In contrast, secretary Clinton is passionless, programmatic, and seems to look upon campaigning as a dutiful child looks upon eating vegetables: something that must be done, but without any great joy. This lack of enthusiasm is infectious.
In the never-ending scandal involving her use of a private email server while secretary of state, Clinton has already made a big mistake. While she is unlikely to face charges (as frankly she should) for mishandling classified documents, the whole episode plays to America’s worst fears about her.
Yet again a Clinton has bent the rules, viewing them as for other, smaller, people. Yet again Mrs Clinton has tried to control the overall narrative regarding her dealings with the world, determining which emails are worthy of sharing with investigators, and which are her private concern, an unedifying inversion of standard government practice.
Worst of all, yet again a Clinton has blamed the rest of the world for a mistake that is clearly her fault alone. This plays directly into the unhealthy settled narrative about secretary Clinton.
While criminal damage is likely to be avoided, the political damage has already set in. A Quinnipiac survey of 30 July found that only 37 per cent of Americans consider Mrs Clinton honest and trustworthy, compared with 57 per cent who consider her downright shifty. Her unfavourable ratings are now the worst they have been in her 23-plus years in national office.
This then is a vulnerable candidate. Given her formidable campaign war chest and her vast organisational advantage, it remains the case that Hillary Clinton is the pre-eminent favourite to win the Democratic nomination.
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However, the key political question is whether she is capable of holding together the Obama coalition of students, white liberals, Hispanics, and African-Americans, which so recently revolutionised American politics.
Her joyless slog to the nomination suggests this will be harder than once seemed the case. Will African-Americans, with Obama off the ticket, vote for her in the overwhelming numbers needed to secure victory?
Will students, traditional laggards at the polls, bother to vote for anyone at all? Will pivotal independents, who so often determine US political elections and who are turned off by her sense of entitlement, decide to support her? If the answer is no to any of these questions, Clinton is far less of a sure thing than she seemed.
The rise of Trump and relative fall of Hillary Clinton are bookends of the same political phenomenon: American presidential politics is entering an unsettled time, where a volatile electorate seems to be desperately casting about for new faces with new answers to the country’s ills.
Perhaps beyond everything else, it is this yearning for change that is the biggest single obstacle standing in secretary Clinton’s path to the White House. Whatever the case, don’t assume America is “Ready for Hillary”.