Hillary Clinton has a knack for turning triumph into tedium.
On the night of Super Tuesday, after her wins all but guaranteed her the Democratic presidential nomination, she served up a victory speech that was a bowl of mush.
“We know we’ve got work to do, but that work is not to make America great again,” she said. “America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole. We have to fill in what’s been hollowed out. We have to make strong the broken places, restitch the bonds of trust and respect.”
Filling holes, stitching bonds, breaking barriers: Is this an election or a public-works project?
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Minutes later, Donald Trump, in his own victory speech, made quick work of Clinton. “She wants to make America whole again,” he said, “and I’m trying to figure out: What is that all about?”
Good question. All talk lately has been about Republican disarray over Trump’s seemingly inexorable march to the GOP nomination. That’s as it should be: Trump’s bigotry and xenophobia are a disgrace to the party.
But Democrats would be foolish to think this guarantees Clinton a victory in November, because, for all Trump’s faults, he has an advantage: He connects with Americans feeling economic anxiety. With his talk of China “killing us” on trade and Mexico “destroying us” on manufacturing jobs, Trump has the potential to best Clinton in an area that traditionally benefits Democrats: a perception that he cares about the problems of ordinary Americans.
This “empathy gap” propelled President Barack Obama past Mitt Romney in 2012 and nearly allowed socialist Bernie Sanders to topple Clinton. If she can’t fix the problem, it could doom her in November.
But there is, in this case, a silver bullet for Clinton: She can make Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., her running mate.
Though formal deliberations have yet to begin, the notion of a Clinton-Warren dream team has already been contemplated in Brooklyn. And there is likely to be more such talk, for several reasons:
Putting the liberal icon on the ticket would reunite the party and energize Sanders supporters who feel Clinton hasn’t gone far enough in adopting his theme of economic justice.
An all-woman ticket would electrify Democrats and widen a gender gap that is already broad enough to swallow Trump, long accused of misogyny.
Above all, Warren’s passionate populism would provide a perfect antidote to Trump. If Clinton embraced Warren, and more of her agenda, she could match Trump’s appeal to disaffected, white, working-class voters.
Clinton’s problem can be seen in last month’s Quinnipiac University poll of voters nationally. Asked whether she “cares about the needs and problems of people like you,” only 42 percent said yes – a strikingly low number for a Democrat. Sanders rated 61 percent. Clinton scored only 6 points better than Trump. Compare that to 2012, when Obama enjoyed a 22-point advantage over Romney on a similar question.
This is worrisome for Democrats because the “empathy gap” was key to Obama’s win in 2012. Among voters who prioritized a president who “cares about people like me,” Obama beat Romney by 63 points. If Trump, with his talk of ripping up trade deals and bringing home jobs, closes that gap, he would be difficult to stop.
Enter Warren, who declined to run and remains neutral. Based on how well Sanders has done, the charismatic Warren, in retrospect, probably would have beaten Clinton.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, she wrote an op-ed for The Boston Globe reminding all of her empathy bona fides. “I graduated from law school nine months pregnant with my second baby – and 100 percent unemployable,” she began, before making the case of a $15 minimum wage and expanded Social Security.
Warren, from modest means in Oklahoma, has as much populist fire as Trump but rages against Wall Street instead of making scapegoats of China and Mexico. Her populism is more inspiring than Trump’s talk of killing and grabbing.
Trump signaled his general-election argument against Clinton on Tuesday night. “She’s been there for so long,” he said. “I mean, if she hasn’t straightened it out by now, she’s not going to straighten it out in the next four years.”
Trump will portray Clinton as a status-quo candidate out of touch with the common man. Warren, better than anybody, could refute that charge.