Hillary’s Two-Front War

Column: Hillary Clinton faces both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in a long, hard slog to the Democratic convention

Trump Hillary Bernie
AP

Until this week I hadn’t noticed the similarities between Hillary Clinton and Colonel-General Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke of the German Empire. The comparison is apt. Both leaders spent years planning a rapid and decisive assault against their opponents. And both leaders unexpectedly found themselves bogged down in a two-front war.

Moltke the Younger is held responsible for the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, the German general staff’s blueprint for the invasion of Belgium and northern France at the outset of the First World War. Its objective: Capture Paris before France and its ally Russia counterattack.

What the strategy failed to anticipate was logistical difficulty. Rail networks and thoroughfares were insufficient to transport and supply the force levels required for victory. The German advance slowed. France rallied. Marshal Joffre held the Germans at the Marne River. By this time Russia had struck East Prussia. The very outcome the Germans wanted to avoid—a two-front war of attrition—was reality.

Brilliant in theory but vulnerable in practice: a fair description of the Clinton plan. Hillary spent years intimidating potential rivals. Deval Patrick, Cory Booker, John Kerry said no. Elizabeth Warren said no. Joe Biden played Hamlet for a few months, said no. The remaining opposition—Chafee, O’Malley, Webb—were jokes. Clinton dispatched them with ease.

One exception. Bernie Sanders, Independent and professed democratic socialist, amassed a fortune of small-dollar donations, held enormous rallies, defined Clinton as an instrument of Wall Street and of multinational corporations. Defeated her in New Hampshire, in the Midwest, the West. The inevitable candidate’s march to Philadelphia—the Paris of 2016—turned into a long and taxing campaign.

Bernie won’t quit. Says, "I’m going to be in it until the last vote is cast." Wants to influence the Democratic Party platform, the messages at its national convention. Make the party more leftwing, more democratic, more radical. Breaking up the banks, single-payer health care—these are his issues. He won Indiana Tuesday, may win a few more states before the end. He’s more than an annoyance, the angry uncle that won’t shut up.

The opportunity cost is huge. Clinton wanted a unified assault on the Republicans, to spend the spring and early summer defining the GOP as radical, its presumptive nominee a misogynistic bigot. Now the situation is complicated. She still has to run against Bernie while Donald Trump has an open field. She still has to travel the country while Trump sits in his skyscraper and manipulates the media to raise her negatives higher than they already are.

Traditional campaigns deploy the saturation bombing of television ads. Trump orders the precision strike, the verbal kill shot that diminishes opponents to insignificance: Low-energy Jeb, pathological Ben Carson, little Marco Rubio, lyin’ Ted Cruz. The latest addition: crooked Hillary. Like the Republicans who fell to Trump, she’ll find it difficult to escape the label.

Worse for Clinton is the fact that Trump’s criticisms harmonize with Sanders’. They go after her on trade, on the speaking fees, on cronyism. They point out she is an insider, they outsiders. They needle her foreign policy decisions, and remind the public that they opposed the war in Iraq (or so Trump says). Trump’s freedom from dogmatism and manners allows him to attack Clinton from any angle, any viewpoint no matter how base.

Her response? Worrisome. She plays to Trump’s strengths, reminds us of her vulnerabilities. She called Trump "a loose cannon," which is exactly why his supporters love him. They want unpredictability, chaos, and destruction in the Beltway. It’s the reason for his campaign.

"Loose cannon" is only an insult to authority figures, to high school principals, coaches of amateur soccer leagues. Americans like loose cannons. Trump’s problem isn’t that he’s a loose cannon. It’s that he’s a horrible person.

Embarrassed, she apologized to coal workers for saying she wanted to put them out of work, a reversal that pleased no one, neither miners nor billionaire environmentalists, while reinforcing the perception that she’s a two-faced opportunist who will say or do anything to get elected.

The Romanian hacker "Guccifer," now in U.S. custody, says he breached the private server at the center of the ongoing FBI investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified material. Her campaign denies it and the accusation cannot be independently verified, but the story of Clinton’s emails persists nevertheless, it festers, it deepens the perception of her untrustworthiness.

If there is good news for Clinton it is that her two-front war, like that of the Imperial Germans, will end with a peace treaty with a Marxist power. Yet the conflict will endure long after Sanders departs the scene. I wonder if Clinton has the political capacity, the dexterity, the subtlety and wit to repel Trump’s assault, put him on the defensive. Can she hold on until reinforcements arrive in November? Her supporters must hope so. The alternative would be confirmation of the analogy with von Moltke, of Hillary Clinton as the inept scion of a doomed empire.