Politics & Policy

Can Bernie Sanders Pull an Obama on Hillary?

Clinton at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in New Hampshire in November. (Darren McCollester/Getty)

There’s a sweat-bead reunion on Hillary Clinton’s brow, and the minions are starting to mutter.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not this time. This time, there would be no hypnotic upstarts waiting patiently in the wings. This time, the bleak lessons of Iowa would have been learned and internalized. This time, the Clintonian personality would be calibrated to exquisite perfection. There would be challengers, of course. But they would be there to serve as a benign foil and to make the victories appear less regal. They weren’t supposed to be fundraising at a breakneck speed. They weren’t supposed to be leading in the early theaters of war. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be approaching national parity. That tragic play has been staged already; this one was to have a new and updated script.

Had one suggested six months ago that the Inevitable Hillary Clinton would be duking it out in the early states with an aging New England pinko, all but the most cynical of prognosticators would have cackled wildly into their coffee. And yet here she is, once again. Two states do not a country make, and national primary polls remain the fool’s own gold. But politics is a dynamic — not a static — game, and what is true at breakfast this morning can be rendered ancient folly by teatime ‪tomorrow. From today’s misty vantage point, there seems to be no chance that Clinton could lose in South Carolina — or, for that matter, that she could fail to prevail in any of the other ostensibly moderate states. (Is there really a market for Sanders in Phoenix? In Orlando? In Las Vegas?) And yet, and yet, and yet: It is always worth considering what happened last time around. In early 2008, Mo Elleithee records, Clinton “was leading in South Carolina by double-digits until the day Obama won Iowa.” And then? “The bottom fell out.”

It is not impossible to imagine a similar decline this year, nor to conceive of the brutal snowball effect that could deprive Clinton once again of the only real ambition she has ever held. First, she would lose Iowa; then she would lose New Hampshire; and then, inspired by the muttering and the grumbling and the inexorable sense of déjà vu, a critical endorsement would go the other way. Perhaps Elizabeth Warren would issue a catastrophic vote of no confidence? Perhaps a “Draft Biden” team would spring up overnight? Or perhaps, most cruelly of all, the FBI would issue its final report just as Clinton was licking her wounds and nursing herself back to health. These are the prospects that keep consultants up at night. And they damn well should, too.

#share#“I’m getting a little PTSD on the whole Iowa thing,” a “2008 veteran” told Politico yesterday. “It’s a little troublesome to watch. The whole lack of enthusiasm, someone gaining momentum on her — that’s the troubling thing.” Indeed, it must be, and not least because a “lack of enthusiasm” isn’t a problem that one can counter with either smart strategy or breathless hard work. As Shaffer’s Salieri could not will his way into the possession of Mozart’s gifts, so Hillary can do next to nothing to overcome her near-fatal lack of charisma. For two decades now, the press has ruminated on her toxic personality and her awkward tin ear, and for two decades the naysayers have responded to the critique with an assurance that the engineers are just one soft reboot away from getting the software fixed once and for all. Suffice to say that they are not. If Hillary does prevail — in either the primary or in the general — it will be despite, not because of, her librarian’s mien. When she can rely upon a gracious appointment or a spousal favor, she is golden; when she has to cross no man’s land under her own steam, she is a hot mess. Has American politics ever played host to a candidate whose talents fell so short of expectation?

#related#That the Democrats’ primary is just as, if not more, interesting than the Republicans’ has been evident for a while to those of us who have been paying attention. But, alas, it has been largely buried by the press. For that we can mostly thank Donald J. Trump, whose penchant for sucking the oxygen out of any room has only helped Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Co. in their quest to hide the dirty laundry. At present, the Democrats are playing an extremely delicate game. In order to win in 2016, their candidate will need to attract all of the minority groups that propelled Obama twice to victory, and in large numbers to boot. And yet, given where the public mood is on a host of important questions, it will need to court the fringier elements among those groups as far away from the cameras as is possible. Up until now, the conventional wisdom has been that Hillary was soaring to the nomination and that there was therefore no reason to dig deeply into the contest on the nightly news. Sanders’s remarkable ascendancy is reversing that assumption — and fast. This is not only bad news for Hillary, who will now sit and watch as the narrative begins to shift once again, but for the party writ large. If the last few days are anything to go by, this is not an altercation that it will want the public to see. There is snow on the ground in Iowa, but the sweating has only just begun.

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