Time to Wet the Bed

Column: The Hillary campaign should start panicking

Hillary Rodham Clinton,
September 11, 2015

In early July, during another rough patch for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Dan Pfeiffer took to CNN to reassure his party. Pfeiffer used to be President Obama’s top communications aide. The title of his op-ed was "Stop the bed-wetting: Hillary Clinton’s doing fine." Bed-wetting, Pfeiffer explained, "is a term of art in Obamaland." Ah, the president and his acolytes. Such sophisticates.

Clinton shouldn’t panic, Pfeiffer argued, because she remains ahead in polling and in fundraising, because Bernie Sanders "is not Barack Obama," and because "Hillary Clinton circa 2015 is not Hillary Clinton circa 2008." Elections, after all, "are about fundamentals," and "the fundamentals point to a decisive if hard fought victory for Clinton." Of course, "A lot can change in the coming months."

No kidding. As we enter the fall campaign season, Pfeiffer’s case seems laughably self-assured and unpersuasive. Now is precisely the time for Clinton and her team to wet the bed—indeed, they may already be doing so.

Polling? Recent surveys have Sanders beating Clinton not only in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Vermont, but also in Iowa, where the Daily Mail notes that Clinton has dropped 12 points in just two months. Support for Clinton nationally has been on a downward trajectory ever since she launched her campaign in April. She spent $2 million on television ads in August—and her numbers fell.

This week’s Monmouth poll has Joe Biden, who hasn’t decided to run, with the best positive rating of the Democratic candidates. He comes in second to Clinton in the horse race, with large numbers of Democrats saying they’d switch to him if he announces his campaign. "A Biden candidacy would be substantially worse for Clinton than Sanders," observes the Washington Post.

As of August 1, Clinton had raised some $68 million. Only Jeb Bush has more money. Sanders, with around $15 million, lags far behind. But, NBC News reports, many of the campaign bundlers who donated to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 haven’t written checks this time around. And, says the Wall Street Journal, "a handful of Mrs. Clinton’s backers said they are prepared to switch allegiances or to fund more than one Democratic candidate." Donors tend to go with the candidate they think will win.

But money isn’t everything (or so I’ve been told). Even if Clinton stays ahead in the money race, she still will have to win over voters. And voters are not attracted to a candidate’s total haul or burn rate, to the size of a Super PAC or to one’s connections to billionaires. What pulls in voters are a candidate’s attributes, his argument. These are things Clinton cannot find in the Hamptons.

Bernie Sanders isn’t Barack Obama, says Dan Pfeiffer. Of course he isn’t. Neither is Hillary Clinton. "President Obama is a once-in-a-generation political talent," Pfeiffer adds, and with this I would, forlornly, have to agree.

Already one notices the differences between a presidential race that includes Barack Obama and one that does not. The almost religious fervor that greeted the president is gone, as is the uniform media enthusiasm and readiness to defend him against criticism, whether from Republicans or Democrats.

There is no one in 2016 with Obama’s bearing and eloquence, his ability to embed himself in pop culture, his incredible good luck. No one feels as if he is part of a movement to bring "hope" and "change" to America. Nor do I expect throngs to fill a football stadium next summer in anticipation of a nomination speech—unless, perhaps, the man giving the speech is Donald Trump.

Pfeiffer is half-right when he says, "Hillary Clinton circa 2015 is not Hillary Clinton circa 2008." Of her differences as a candidate there can be no doubt. She’s worse. Much worse. She is more removed from everyday life, more aloof, more entitled, more prone to verbal gaffes, more vulnerable on questions of ethics and integrity. She is out of practice, out of shape, out of alignment. She vacillates between aggression and apology, she panders, she is clumsy, she is besieged.

Hillary Clinton in 2008 was closer in time both to her last election in 2006 and to her last competitive election in 2000. She did not have the FBI "A-Team" in possession of her private email server, investigating whether it compromised national security. She did not have "senior intelligence officials" leaking to the New York Times that she had received "highly classified information" on the email account hosted by her private server. She did not have a judge ordering the State Department to release tranches of her emails every few months. Her political and personal future did not depend on the outcome of decisions made at FBI headquarters in Washington, DC.

I can’t argue with the idea that elections are "about fundamentals." The fundamentals of the 2008 election were these: In the midst of financial collapse and unpopular war a savvy group of political operatives guided a talented candidate to victory as the first African-American president. And the fundamentals of 2016 are these: In the midst of bipartisan outrage at the political establishment and an overwhelming desire for a change in the direction of the country, an increasingly unpopular candidate surrounded by yes-men and back-stabbers is hounded not only by an ongoing government investigation but by growing perceptions that she cannot be trusted and does not care about people. Don’t worry, though—after 30 years in public life, she’s finally going to show us her heart.

"The Clinton campaign has a new message for its supporters: No bed wetting," Kristen Welker reported last month. "This is a familiar mantra we heard in the Obama campaign of 2008. Clinton officials say it applies now."

It does not. The Clinton officials are wrong. If they aren’t already panicking—Tuesday’s "apology" for the email business is a sign that they might be—they really ought to start. New York is not Chicago, Robby Mook is not David Plouffe, John Podesta is not David Axelrod, and, sweet Jesus, Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama. Put down the Hillary-branded beet chips, Clinton supporters. And break out the rubber sheets.