I finally got to hear and read Clinton’s campaign relaunch speech, and she better hope for favorable general election conditions. She is running as the candidate of the Obama coalition that beat her in 2008, but she seems to be making some of the same strategic mistakes as Romney in 2012.
Obama burst on the scene reminding people that God was worshipped in Blue American and that people had gay friends in Red America. He ran as the candidate of the general interest in 2008, and, even as he got more explicitly partisan in his reelection campaign, Obama usually tried to present issues so that he looked like a moderate rather than a liberal. He usually sounded like he was going after an open-minded voter who was carefully listening to both candidates.
As David Frum pointed out, Clinton is running as the candidate of “young people, poor people, people with disabilities, and people of color”, while not mentioning Social Security or Medicare. She sees a Hillary America and an Anti-Hillary America.
There is something of the Romney campaign in all of this. Romney’s 2012 campaign was always implicitly aimed at a bare majority (at most) of the electorate. People didn’t have to hear his infamous condemnation of the 47 percent to get the message. If you did not have a net income tax liability, and you had no interest in starting your own business, it was pretty clear that Romney was not thinking much about (or much of) you.
Like Frum said, Clinton is running as the candidate of the “younger, more diverse, less affluent, unmarried, and more urban”. Obama had a greater share of the support from these groups, but he never campaigned as the candidate of these groups in the way that Romney ran as the candidate of the right-leaning business class. By implicitly writing-off older/whiter/rural voters, she is making the job of the Republicans that much easier. It frees them up to win larger margins among those groups and it leaves the GOP free to poach some votes from the Democratic coalition.
Compare the number of specific references to unauthorized immigrants and LGBT people in her speech with references that were specifically aimed at what Henry Olsen identified as the ideologically heterogeneous white working-class. It isn’t even close. My read of the election returns is that millions of these non-evangelical working-class whites voted for Obama in 2008 and stayed home in 2012. They are a swing constituency, and they are concentrated in swing states. I don’t think there is any inherent contradiction in going after this constituency and any of the others that she talked about in her speech, but her rhetorical priorities are basically conceding this constituency to the Republicans (contingent on the Republicans having a tax and health care policy that is aimed for a broader constituency than the Chamber of Commerce’s lobbyists- not a guarantee). Demographics being what they are, Clinton can theoretically win even if those “missing white voters” vote Republican in 2016, but it makes winning much more difficult and she leaves herself with little room for error or bad luck (or Republican competence).
There is also something else that is weird about Clinton’s speech to the Obama coalition. Her speech feels less like it came from the Obama team than from the Romney team. Obama’s speeches were about how his supporters (and when we listened to him, we would all be his supporters) were the latest iteration of the Founders, and the abolitionists and the boys who landed on Normandy. Romney saw Obama’s supporters as people who wanted “gifts” paid for with other people’s money. Now read Clinton’s speech again. Who do you think she agrees with about the motives of Obama’s supporters?
This is all putting aside the basic phoniness of her fighting-for-you act. Is anyone in the world dumb enough to believe that this fighter would be fighting for same-sex marriage if the polls on the issue resembled those of 2010? You will notice that the fighting fighter who never backs down is sitting in her corner for the fight over the TPP.
For all that, Clinton isn’t exactly a bad candidate. She would just be a replacement-level presidential nominee. If she were to drop out for some inscrutable reason and a large field entered the Democratic nominating contest, the eventual candidate would likely be, on balance, just as good as she is. That she is the presumptive nominee is primarily due to the path dependency of the Democratic party’s elites.