I am skeptical of claims that Hillary Clinton should have a commanding lead against Republican rival Donald Trump. He’s an inept candidate and an incontrovertible buffoon, critics say. Clinton should be crushing him, but isn’t. Why? What’s wrong with her?
This article was originally published at Washington Monthly
Detractors point to her defeat by Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries. If there’s a way to lose, they say, Clinton and her team will find it. To make a more forceful pitch to the white working class men favoring her opponent, she should appear “more relatable,” “less wonky.”
There’s no small amount of armchair quarterbacking here, nor small amount of sexism. More relevant to my point, there’s no small amount of obliviousness to the power of polarization.
As I noted in US News & World Report Tuesday, the Republican Party could have nominated a hamster, and the base of the party would have rallied around the rodent for the GOP’s sake. With that unity, opinion surveys would predictably reflect a very close race.
But let’s remember that Clinton lost to President Obama by a hair in 2008 (about 40,000 votes). This year, she bested Bernie Sanders by 4 million votes. She won about 2 million more votes than Trump did during the GOP primaries. She won more votes, in fact, than any Democrat since the 1960s, when the parties began taking primaries seriously. She did that even though 2016’s primary was not nearly as competitive as 2008’s. And she and Sanders won together as many votes as all 17 Republicans did.
Even before Monday night, when Clinton handed Trump his ass during the first presidential debate in front of 81 million Americans, the record was clear: She knows how to do this. Mind you, this isn’t the empty praise of a partisan. This is noting a record of accomplishment by a public figure in which we can have faith.
I would also note that many of her liberal critics are older white men. This is not to say such critics have nothing valuable to contribute. It’s to say they may not have the life experience to recognize and understand the challenges faced by the first women to be nominated by a major political party. And it’s to say that these critics have something in common with Donald Trump.
Which brings me to my next point.
Trump may be Clinton’s perfect opponent.
Clinton is the first to admit she’s not a great politician. She doesn’t have the natural gifts of her husband. She doesn’t possess the inspirational oratory of Obama. But even if she had those gifts, she may not benefit from them. Despite many benchmarks of progress women have achieved in this country, they are still suspect when seeking power. If she were like Bill or Barack, she’d suffer for it.
So what does she do? She does what all pioneers have done. She has prepared more than anyone, mastered strategy more than anyone, learned from her mistakes better than anyone. Indeed, she had to, because for a women to seek the power of the highest office, she must prove she’s twice as worthy as her male counterpart who may or may not feel entitled to that power by dint of being a man.
Trump is one such man. If Monday made anything clear, it was that he bullshitted his way to the GOP nomination. At exam time, he wanted an ‘A’ without having done his homework. He’s pretty much the opposite of what most Americans consider deserving.
The debates revealed another level of entitlement. He doesn’t have respect for any authority higher than himself. Most Americans defer to some kind of higher authority — whether it be the rule of law, facts, or God — but Trump does not. There is nothing, not even the fact that he supported the US invasion of Iraq, that supersedes his ego.
Perhaps this is due to his wealth. Perhaps this is due to his celebrity. I don’t care. What’s clear is that he operates on the margins of fact-based reality, a place where he doesn’t need to win arguments to achieve his goals. He merely bulldozes his way.
I suspect Clinton never had that luxury. Like most successful women who are challenged in ways most successful men are never challenged, she has learned the value of humility, and the purpose of a higher calling — to go where no woman has gone before.
I’m heading toward hagiography, I know. I don’t mean to. I think Clinton is a political animal: ambitious, arrogant, pandering, willing to bend the truth and shift positions when convenient, all of that.
My point is that a lifetime of such challenges has prepared her to face a person who most embodies all the challenges she has faced. And she revealed Trump to be exactly what Trump is.
An empty vessel, a shell of a man.