Hillary Clinton is moving so quickly to the left that it’s hard to keep up. Her aides are telling the New York Times she wants to "topple" the One Percent, she’s pledging solidarity with union bosses over lunch meetings at Mario Batali restaurants in Midtown, she supports a constitutional amendment to suppress political speech, she’s down with a right to same-sex marriage, she’s ambivalent over the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she’s calling for an end to the "era of mass incarceration," she wants to go "further" than President Obama’s illegal executive amnesty. It’s called pandering, but the press is too frazzled or sympathetic to call her on it. There’s desperation to Clinton’s moves, an almost panicked energy, to close the gap between her and her party’s base. If Elizabeth Warren called for full Communism, Clinton would be at the barricades the next day.
Warren’s the reason for the policy shuffle. Clinton is so terrified of losing the Democratic primary—again—that she’s willing to trade consistency for security against an insurgent from the left. But she may be trading electability too. The Democrats have an advantage in presidential elections, but last I checked the country hasn’t turned into a really big MSNBC greenroom. One day Clinton will have to defend her positions against a non-witch Republican, and she’ll have eight years of Obama to answer for as well. She doesn’t have the gall, the rakishness, or the aw-shucks charm that allowed her husband to slither out of such difficulties, and judging from Bill’s most recent interviews he’s losing his abilities too. Indeed, the politician Hillary Clinton reminds me most of lately isn’t her husband or Warren. It’s Mitt Romney.
Like Clinton, Romney ran twice. Like Clinton, he established his political profile under a different set of circumstances than when he ran for president. He got his start as the modern, technocratic Republican, fixing the Olympics, delivering universal health insurance to Massachusetts, and projecting moderate sensibilities on many issues. But the dynamics of Republican presidential primaries forced him to swerve right, mix up his identity. He’s not Disraeli so the moves caused him trouble. The press mocked his "severely conservative" remark, his desire to "double Guantanamo" (a fantastic idea, by the way), and his support for the "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants. There had always been a false assuredness to Romney, the Eddie Haskell feeling that he was putting you on, trying a little too hard. The policy shifts played into this aura of inauthenticity, and by the time Eric Fehrnstrom was likening Romney to an Etch-a-Sketch, the battle to define the Republican nominee was close to lost. Super Pac ads over the summer and the 47 percent remark in September made things worse. No way Romney could connect.
Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton are both wealthy, well-meaning overachievers who have a habit of saying things they come to regret. Charles Krauthammer says Hillary has "authentic inauthenticity," which is a good way to sum up many people’s view of Romney. Clinton hasn’t had a good week of press in years. Her book launch was immediately sunk by controversies over her paid speeches and her remark that she and Bill were "dead broke" when they left the White House. She’s under investigation for her response to the Benghazi attack, for her private (and deleted) email server, and bestselling authors are picking through foreign donations to her family charity. Her response has been to go underground, leave the explaining to Bill—an effort he immediately sabotaged by telling NBC News he didn’t understand why people had their doubts about the foundation, and that he would keep making paid speeches because "I gotta pay our bills."
Romney lost for many reasons. The economy wasn’t as bad as he said it was, he was trying to defenestrate America’s first black president, he never had a gut connection with the public like Reagan or Dubya or Obama. Another reason showed up in the exit poll: Romney beat President Obama on such candidate attributes as "shares my values," "is a strong leader," and "has a vision for the future," but for those who said what matters most is a president who "cares about people like me," Obama won 81 percent to 18 percent. Voters didn’t think Romney cared about them because he had inadvertently played into the Democratic line of attack: His flip-flopping, career in private equity, and writing off of almost half the electorate reinforced the image peddled by Plouffe, Messina, and Axelrod of an aloof and somewhat goofy plutocrat.
Clinton might as well be telling Republicans how to run against her. This week’s Wall Street Journal / NBC poll reported that her favorable and unfavorable ratings are now even, and contained the stunning finding that only 25 percent of voters find her "honest and straightforward." If the Republicans can’t see the opening here to define Clinton for the public as dishonest, untrustworthy, tricky, and foul, then they don’t really deserve to win, which they might not anyway. Hillary may find it's hard to convince someone she "cares about people like me" when there's the possibility she'll sell that someone out.
And selling out two decades of political centrism is exactly what Clinton has spent the last two weeks doing. The coming attack ads are obvious: clip reels of Hillary being on every side of every issue. If Clinton wins the nomination, as seems likely, and tries to "shake the Etch-a-Sketch," she’ll still be dragging her primary baggage behind her: income inequality, climate change, immigration, and the criminal justice system are just not major concerns of the general public, which is more interested in jobs, wages, and national security. Clinton’s leftward drive is undermining her general election message—she’ll be too busy explaining, badly, all of her different positions, all of the latest foibles and accusations.
"Many factors allowed [Bill] Clinton to survive questions about his character: satisfaction with overall peace and prosperity, respect for his skill and effectiveness, and distaste for critics who repeatedly seemed to overreach," writes Ronald Brownstein. "But his most important shield may have been the belief that he understood, and genuinely hoped to ameliorate, the problems of ordinary Americans." Brownstein’s evidence is the 1996 exit poll, in which voters said they didn’t trust Clinton but re-elected him with 49 percent of the vote anyway. It’s a clever article but not all that relevant: the electorate of 20 years ago is not the same as today, Hillary is not her husband, there is no "satisfaction with peace and prosperity," her "skill and effectiveness" is, to say the least, a matter of dispute, and odds are the Republican nominee next year is going to do better on the empathy question than Bob Dole.
Brownstein’s piece actually is confirmation of Clinton’s dilemma: It cites two polls that asked whether she understands average Americans, and she scored less than 50 percent in each. A candidate’s honesty and ability to empathize are related: The more reasons you give a voter to doubt you, to worry you’re more concerned with appeasing an ideological base than working for the public interest, the less he’ll think you understand where he’s at. Over 60, white, affluent, famous, desperate to seem in touch, and oh so bad on the trail—Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton are one hot match, one genuine power couple.