Open Essay

Hillary Clinton: Make Way for Madam President

James Astill is the Lexington columnist of The Economist and a contributor to Open
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In spite of the trust deficit, it’s time for the Clinton dynasty’s tryst with the White House

IT HAS BEEN the most violent, distasteful and at times maddeningly puerile drama in America’s recent political history. No wonder the Republican primary contest has dominated headlines, in America and everywhere. In just the past few days, a naked picture of Donald Trump’s wife was circulated by a group linked to the Republican front-runner’s main challenger, Ted Cruz, under the headline: ‘Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady’. Trump responded by vowing to “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, Heidi, whatever that might mean. He then sought to denigrate Mrs Cruz’s looks by retweeting an unflattering picture of her alongside another shot of Melania, a former model. Cruz called his rival a “snivelling coward”. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was meanwhile arrested for assaulting a female journalist. The lawyer hired to defend him, it transpired, had himself been accused of biting a stripper. It was just another week on the Republican trail.

Much less attention is being paid to the Democratic primary contest, which is unsurprising. Pitting Hillary Clinton, a veteran of three decades in public life, against Bernie Sanders, a left-wing challenger who, despite his reputation for being a plain-speaking outsider, has served in the US Congress for almost as long, it is less titillating. Republican televised debates have been absurd three-hour slug-fests, in which Trump has insulted his rivals—“Lyin’ Ted Cruz”, he calls his challenger—and talked up the size of his penis. The Democratic debates have, by contrast, been dust-dry discussions of policy, in which Clinton and Sanders have talked economic theory, immigration rules and often bored their—much smaller—television audiences rigid. Yet their contest, which Clinton is well on her way to winning, is in a way far more important than the circus on the right, for the simple reason that it looks likelier to produce, in November, America’s next president.

That would represent a third consecutive presidential victory for the Democrats, a momentous achievement. America’s political parties rarely win three terms on-the-trot— the Democrats have only managed it twice since 1828. And a popular demand for change, primarily motivated by years of slow wage-growth, made it look all the more unlikely that they would repeat the feat this year; 65 per cent of Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Such a rating, in normal times, would make it extraordinarily hard for an incumbent party to retain power—even if it were in better shape than the Democratic party is.

After six years of gridlock in Congress, the Democratic Party machine is creaking with neglect. Its intellectual reserves are similarly depleted; for a centre-left party, it appears to have given remarkably little attention to the income inequality firing much of Americans’ discontent. “Just saying we’ve got to fight for children, and that when women succeed, we all succeed... it’s true, but it’s not new or exciting to the electorate,” laments a Democratic lawmaker.

Neither is Clinton new or exciting; nor is she loved. Beset by old scandals, a fudgy platform and fresh doubts about her ability to enthuse an electorate that hates establishment politics and distrusts her particularly, she is one of the least regarded politicians in America. Around six in 10 Americans distrust her. That is a level of disdain which, again, in normal times, would virtually bar her from the White House; no one has become president with negative trust ratings. They also go some way to explaining Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing in the Democratic primaries hitherto.

When he entered the race last year, the 74-year-old self- proclaimed socialist, who, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, twinned the town with the Soviet Union, where he honeymooned, did not look like a serious candidate. Yet his left-wing populism has appealed to discontents on the left in much the same way that Trump, with his brutish, America-first nativism, is appealing on the right. Sanders has drawn the biggest crowds of any candidate; hundreds of thousands have flocked to hear him, in his nasal Brooklyn accent, castigate Wall Street bankers and vow to squeeze the rich, thus to provide universal healthcare and free college education. He has so far won 15 states—including a run of five straight victories, in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Utah and Hawaii, on 22 and 26 March.

He is most unlikely to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton has won 20 primaries, including in more populous states, such as Texas and Florida, which has given her a commanding lead. She has around 270 more delegates—which, in the Democratic contest, are awarded, state-by-state, in proportion to vote-share—than Sanders. And the remaining big states, including New York on 19 April and California on 7 June, look likely to favour her. Nonetheless, Sanders, whose initial ambitions probably extended little beyond influencing the Democratic policy debate, is in no hurry to admit defeat. Nor, due to his staggering success at fund-raising—in January he raised $20 million, even more than the well-connected Clinton—does he need to. This is likely to extend the contest well into June—consuming political energy on the left that Clinton would much rather devote to her probable general election campaign.

DESPITE HER STRUGGLES, however, the bookies make Clinton a copper-bottomed favourite to become America’s next leader—and the first ‘Madam President’. Ladbrokes, a bookmaker, gives her a 70 per cent chance. There are two big reasons for this, which start with the painfully prolonged political suicide unfolding in the Republican camp. Unloved as Clinton is, Trump and Cruz are detested. Well over 60 per cent of Americans have a negative impression of the Republican favourite; over half thinking poorly of Cruz, a Bible-bashing right-wing ideologue, who appears to have been personally disliked by almost everyone he has ever worked with.

Until recently, none of Cruz’s fellow senators had endorsed him. And those who since have, as it has become clear that he alone looks able to block Trump, have done so with heavy hearts. Lindsey Graham, a veteran senator from South Carolina, formerly described the choice between Trump and Cruz as being akin to “being shot or poisoned”. That added a fairly substantial caveat to his subsequent endorsement of Cruz. Remarkably, the Republicans appear to have winnowed their original field of 16 more or less credible candidates down to the pair least likely to beat Clinton. Head-to-head polling puts the former first lady ahead of both Trump and Cruz, including a widening double-digit lead over the Republican front-runner. It is little wonder some Republican conspiracy theorists believe the candidacy of Trump—who was once a registered Democrat—may be a put-up job, brokered by Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, to nobble their party from within.

Sanders’ left-wing populism has appealed to discontents on the left in the same way that Trump, with America-first nativism, is appealing on the right

The second big reason for Democratic cheer is a raft of demographic shifts that are almost entirely in the party’s favour. White voters, who mostly vote Republicans, are a shrinking portion of the electorate. As a percentage of the population, working-class Whites, the Republicans’ most loyal fans, have plummeted by 25 percentage points in the past 35 years. Meanwhile, non-Whites, single women, millennials and the irreligious—four mainstays of the diverse coalition that won Barack Obama his two Democratic victories—are proliferating. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with a 44-state landslide, non-Whites represented 12 per cent of the electorate. In 2012 they represented 28 per cent, which is why Mitt Romney, despite securing 59 per cent of the White vote—an even bigger portion than Reagan got— won only 25 states and no cigar.

With their growing demographic advantage, the Democrats have in fact won the popular vote—a likely predictor of victory in a presidential election—in five of the past six elections. Recognising the crisis this means for their party, Republican bosses drafted a plan after Obama’s victory in 2012 to expand their coalition. At heart, it involved winning more votes from Hispanics, one of America’s fastest growing electoral groups, whose members tend to hold conservative views on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Romney, who had adopted a hard line on immigration, won a measly 27 per cent of the Hispanic vote; according to Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, his successor needs to attract around 40 per cent in November to stand much chance of regaining the White House.

This is merely one reason why Trump’s slurring of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and promise to deport 11 million mostly-Hispanic illegal immigrants appeared so unwise. The Republican front-runner is now disliked by 80 per cent of Hispanics—70 per cent dislike him intensely. For some demographic experts, this combination of Democratic advantage and Republican self-harm is already sufficient to predict a crushing victory for the incumbent party in November. Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, points out that in 2012 the four mainstays of the Democratic coalition represented 51 per cent of the electorate; they now represent 63 per cent. He believes this augurs a “shattering election” for the Republicans: “Afterwards, we’ll say this is a country transformed.”

To make that happen, however, the Democrats will still need to turn out their ‘emerging majority’, as their demographic advantage is known. Because, by a freak of electoral happenstance, the Democratic and Republican coalitions, though they represent very different socio-ethnic groups, are nonetheless so closely matched that even a small change in the participation rate, on either side, could have a dramatic effect. By one reckoning, if turnout among Black voters, who voted in droves for the current president, dropped to pre-Obama levels, it could cost his party Florida and much of its lead in a handful of other important swing states, including Ohio and Virginia. That would leave it vulnerable to the surge in turnout from angry White voters that Trump aims to bring about.

EVEN UNDER OBAMA, whom Democrats mostly revere, there are many examples of what happens when Democrats fail to vote—because they tend to be much less motivated than their Republican counterparts to do so in sub-national polls. Under Obama, the Democrats have lost 900 seats in state legislatures, 12 governors, 69 seats in the House of Representatives and 13 in the Senate. In Arkansas, where the Clintons assembled their political operation in the 1980s, the governor, all six Congressmen and 64 of 100 state Senate members are now Republicans. Lose the presidency, and the Democrats might look like a party in free fall.

Trump’s and Cruz’s hopes of making that happen rest on broadly the same strategy. They are targeting different groups of White voters—the former, mainly blue-collar workers, the latter, ideological conservatives—yet both aim to boost turnout among White voters while praying that non-Whites do not rally to their Democratic opponent with anything like the enthusiasm they showed for Obama. Clinton’s struggles, combined with record Republican turnout in many of the primaries, have leant a certain amount of credibility to that hope, at least so far as Trump is concerned. Cruz is probably appealing to too narrow a slab of the Republican vote to have a serious chance of becoming president. But Trump, appalling as it may sound, has at least a shot.

Probably, it would involve rallying millions of blue-collar voters—including many who usually vote Democratic or don’t vote—in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, which have voted blue in most recent general elections. By turning them red, Trump could, at a pinch, afford to lose more ethnically diverse swing states, such as Virginia and Florida and still win the presidency. This is, at least, sufficiently imaginable to remind Trump’s opponents of the nightmare they are fighting to prevent: the prospect of the property tycoon, a thug and rank opportunist, in the Oval Office is appalling. Yet, as Trump’s negative ratings climb, and his behaviour grows only more irascible, it is nonetheless pretty hard to envisage this.

Clinton’s struggle with Sanders, embarrassing though it has been, appears meanwhile to have made her stronger. Her previous aura of inevitability reminded many Democrats of the air of entitlement they most dislike in her; by contrast, to see her duking it out with the Vermont senator, mixing legitimate blows at his unfeasible economic plans with low ones at his mixed record on gun control, recalls the fighting skills they most respect her for.

Since her first defeat to Sanders, a wipeout in New Hampshire, Clinton’s campaign has clearly improved. Her message has also got clearer and, rhetorically at least, more left-wing. Jettisoning the mushy centrism that leaves primary voters cold, she rages against exploitative, polluting companies; and, though she offers no new solutions to stagnant wages, she speaks of the problem more often and urgently. Her tone is sharper. She would not wilt against Trump as most of his Republican rivals have.

With that general election battle in mind, Democratic voters appear, similarly, increasingly more cohesive and disciplined, even as their Republican counterparts fall apart. Trump’s insurgency is partly aimed at the leadership of his own party; the fact that most Democrats respect Obama is, by contrast, a force for unity, including between Clinton and Sanders. If most Democrats do not enthuse about their likely nominee, even Sanders devoted supporters would mostly be expected to vote for her. And there is even some evidence that, as the prospect of Clinton taking on Trump looms, Democratic voters may be starting to feel more of the enthusiasm they have hitherto lacked.

On 29 March, a poll released by Gallup suggested Clinton’s supporters are even more fired up about her candidacy than Sanders’ are about his. If that is right, it is another unforeseen development Trump can take credit for. It is also evidence to suggest, in this most unpredictable of election seasons, that the most predictable conclusion, a second president in the Clinton household, is becoming more probable by the day.

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