WASHINGTON – “What we are seeing is post-purchase cognitive dissonance,” a well-connected former Democratic official told me. Hillary Clinton has effectively secured her party’s nomination, in part through an embrace by superdelegates who demonstrate that the Democratic establishment is far more privileged than its toothless, gouty Republican counterpart.
But then, instead of consolidation, humiliation.
Clinton has lost six out of the last seven Democratic contests. Her opponent Bernie Sanders – a socialist and only recently a Democrat – has exceeded her fundraising totals for the last three months. Some of Clinton’s losses have been blowouts, like her 46-point defeat in the Washington caucus. In the Wisconsin primary, Sanders won 82 percent of voters under 30, and 83 percent of those who most value the quality of honesty in a candidate. He narrowly beat Clinton among women, and won independents by 40 points.
And this outpouring of support for Sanders has come for a candidate who has all but lost. At least in this universe. Clinton only needs one-third of the remaining Democratic delegates to secure the nomination, in electoral territory that grows more favorable.
Clinton is inevitable. But this is inevitability without affection – the inevitability of a glacier, not a movement.
The counterfactuals, in this case, are instructive. If the field of Democratic establishment candidates had been broader – including, say, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Jerry Brown – Sanders might be in Donald Trump’s situation, leading for the nomination with a strong plurality. If the Sanders slot had been filled by a more electable progressive – say, Elizabeth Warren – Clinton would be toast.
Why is an impeccably qualified candidate who is winning her party’s nomination so politically feeble? Some of this is just raw political skills, or the lack of them. Clinton – who is engaging and self-deprecating in small groups – does not translate well to a big rally setting. Her attempts at intensity get mixed reviews.
“She is out of her element,” the former Democratic official told me. “But lurking underneath these concerns are questions: What is she really about? What is her core? What is she willing to fight for? So far, this is an antiseptic campaign.”
For evidence, let’s go to Clinton’s descriptions of her own cause. Recently on “Morning Joe,” she summarized her appeal: “I’ve been in the trenches a long time.” That is quite a slogan to win over the youngsters. Elsewhere she said: “I think that should be the way people judge who the next president they want to see in the Oval Office is, because at the end of the day, producing results is really what it’s all about.” This is a purely instrumental description. Lawn mowers produce results. Drain cleaners produce results. A preacher with that sense of mission would have an empty collection plate.
The absence of a clear mission raises questions about Clinton’s motivations. Her leftward tack on a variety of issues – opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, supporting the breakup of the big banks – has removed the last hints of 1990s New Democrat Clintonism, at least for the moment. She seems to be running as a candidate who happens to have all of Barack Obama’s views (except, perhaps, on Syria). What, other than the desire for power in her own experienced hands, explains her political relentlessness?
This is the context in which 57 percent of Americans, in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, do not judge Clinton to be honest and trustworthy. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t leave her alone with the cash drawer. Rather, this represents a belief that the main cause of the Clintons is the Clintons themselves, and that a variety of rules get bent in service to that cause. It is sometimes claimed that Hillary Clinton is a Teflon figure; that nothing – not her email troubles, not her foundation troubles, not her Benghazi troubles, not her FBI troubles – sticks to her. This is true if it means that no single scandal has knocked her out of the race. But there has been a cumulative effect – a gradual oxidation that has left a layer of rust. For the purposes of this election, none of this is likely to matter. Republicans seem utterly determined to lose a perfectly winnable race. But it is not a small thing, or a good thing, that Americans seem prepared to elect a president they do not trust.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.