Panic is seeping into Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Her recent lead of more than 10 points over Donald Trump has withered to 1.5 percent. There are many reasons why she could lose.
Trump is simply a better politician. His adroit use of media enables him to define the terms of the debate. Given her 25 years in the public eye, Clinton’s sky-high negatives are more difficult to shift than Trump’s. Voters trust Trump more on the economy and to bring change Washington.
Demographics may favor Democrats as the population grows browner and most voters are women, but white working-class Democrats are streaming over to Trump in must-win states like Pennsylvania. While Clinton will rise in the polls once the party consolidates behind her, the anger on the left toward the Democratic Party is spurring many Sanders supporters to vow they will sit out the election, vote for a third-party candidate, or even cast a ballot for Trump.
Nonetheless, Trump’s paths to victory are narrow. Most elites are lined up against him. The corporate media, intelligentsia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street will hammer Trump relentlessly as he threatens the American-led project of globalization, which includes the liberal multiculturalism he trashes with glee.
Obama will deploy his status as the most popular national politician to boost Clinton. By the time the media finish defining Trump as the second coming of Hitler, Sanders backers will vote for Clinton overwhelmingly, even if reluctantly. And the narrative of a Trump victory is driven more by the media’s desire for clickbait than a realistic assessment of his chances.
But one mountainous obstacle remains for Clinton. Even as she’s found her footing in attacking Trump, lacerating him as a unique danger to humanity a la Barry Goldwater, Clinton struggles to provide an affirmative reason why she should be in the White House.
Clinton can paint Trump as a hypothetical threat but her history shows she is a proven threat. Once her unabashed venality, ambition, and pandering is filtered out, what remains is Clinton’s lust for war and Wall Street without limits. So it’s not entirely accurate, as Jon Stewart observes, that Clinton lacks “the courage of her convictions,” but she won’t be elected president with a slogan of more wars and more bank bailouts.
Clinton’s strategy is to find the right message, the right tone, and overwhelm Trump on the ground. While Trump smashed GOP records with 13 million votes in the primary, that is just 20 percent of what Obama garnered in his 2012 re-election.
And Trump is sowing the seeds of his defeat given his chaotic management style, a staff just one-tenth the size of Clinton’s, abandonment of the crucial get-out-the-vote effort to the Republican National Committee, and plans to rely on his ego to turn out voters.
This election comes down to Trump’s vulgar will to power versus Clinton’s brute force neoliberalism.
But Clinton could steer a course that would enable her to drub Trump and swing Congress back into the Democratic column. Rather than obsess over the mechanics and messaging of campaigning, Clinton could make opposition to new free-trade deals and renegotiating existing ones like NAFTA a signature campaign pledge.
By doing so, Clinton could steal Trump’s thunder. While liberals imagine Trump supporters have crawled out of a swamp of “racial and cultural resentments,” they are also deeply motivated by economic grievances.
Since 1997, free-trade deals have cost most of the 5 million manufacturing jobs lost in the United States and reduced annual wages by some US$1,800 for non-college educated workers. Given Trump’s tendency to reverse positions mid-thought, there’s little risk for Clinton to flip-flop, as she already has on nearly every position. She already switched last fall to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership after calling it the “gold standard.”
But Clinton only meekly disagrees with the TPP, saying, “I don’t have the text, we don’t yet have all the details, I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.” While she ticks off every issue imaginable to bolster the economy, including clean energy, early childhood learning, and medical research, she’s utterly silent about disastrous free-trade deals like NAFTA.
It’s a replay of Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection: tout micro-policies that sound good but do little to help workers, while taking pains not to loosen Wall Street’s iron-fisted control of the economy. By not forcefully rejecting free trade, Clinton refuses to acknowledge how it’s wrecked working-class status and aspirations.
It’s not like Wall Street has a choice this election. Even if Trump managed to suppress his mercurial and authoritarian tendencies, his pledges to impose tariffs, commence trade wars, and deport 11 million immigrants would wreak economic and social havoc.
Between Trump and Sanders, most Americans have voted for redistributive policies this election. The only difference is Trump supporters blame immigrants for their woes as much, if not more, as they blame Wall Street and politicians. Plus, Trump’s caustic assault means Clinton will eventually be forced to denounce free-trade deals. (NAFTA is the one issue Trump is consistent about, having publicly opposed it since at least 1993.)
If Clinton leaped ahead of the curve, making opposition to free trade a keystone position and buttressing it with a trillion-dollar clean-energy jobs program, she could consolidate Sanders supporters and working-class Democrats behind her, dashing Trump’s chances.
As much as this makes sense for Clinton, even from a realpolitik perspective, it’s unlikely to happen. Obama confronted the same choice in 2009. He had a mandate and congressional super-majority to push for a “New, New Deal,” a huge public works and benefits program that would begin to reverse decades of income inequality.
Instead, his administration spent its political capital on restoring the profits and power of investment banks and choosing tepid measures for everyone else such as rationalizing health care, rather than expanding it, and enacting a stimulus that failed to revive the economy. If millions of Americans currently had an “Obamajob” and full health care, it would have created widespread support among workers for the Democrats as a party that can deliver the goods.
Despite a clear path to victory, Clinton will take the more perilous road of neoliberalism. That is the thinking behind the Democrats’ claim that for “every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents.”
Playing to the right is evidence of how the Democratic Party has become a more committed and competent manager of capitalist globalization than the GOP. Clinton is also a creature of Wall Street going back to the late seventies when she made a small fortune trading cattle futures with the suspicious help of a market expert.
Clinton is likely to win, but if she does lose to Trump it’s not because white Americans are unalterably racist. It’s because the Democratic Party and the Clintons are unalterably devoted to Wall Street.
An earlier version of this article originally ran on TeleSur.