Hillary Clinton has obviously had a bad summer. She’s losing in New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders, even among women. She’s barely leading him in Iowa. In a Quinnipiac poll of potential general election matchups, she’s beating Donald Trump by only 4 points, 45 to 41, and she’s beating Marco Rubio by only 1 point.
The conventional Democratic muck-a-muck view is that she horribly mishandled the private email server issue. That’s part of it, but the polling shows a much more pervasive personal set of weaknesses. In an AP/GfK poll, only 40 percent of Americans think she is compassionate. Only 30 percent say she is honest. In a variety of polls, many voters say she just doesn’t get people like them, usually the key Democratic strength.
Not all of these troubles are her fault. It’s tough to run as a member of the establishment in this time of popular disgust with establishments (ask Jeb Bush). But Clinton’s campaign nonetheless has a distinct aura. Maybe next to Michael Dukakis’, it is the least romantic, poetic and uplifting Democratic campaign in decades .
All descriptions of her campaigns have to start with the fact that for most of Clinton’s political career she has been playing defense. Sometimes she’s had to defend herself from critical barrages amid scandal: Whitewater and the Rose Law Firm records straight through to Benghazi and the email server. Other times she’s had to endure emotional and media exposures sparked by her husband’s escapades. Even when she ran for president in 2008, she was on the defense against the Obama tide. She campaigned best when the Obama tide was strongest and she was forced to struggle against it.
This pattern of playing on the defensive side of the ball has given her real strengths — she has endured and persevered and rarely bent. But this defensive posture has given her, at least in public, an embattled combative posture, and sometimes an air of reactiveness.
In her campaign speeches she describes a political, economic and global world that is red in tooth and claw. The main traits required to survive in this struggle against the contemptible foes are tenacity, toughness and calculation. There is a pervasive us/them assumption in her speeches, and the need for armoring up. The defining verb in her political campaign is “fight.”
In speeches she is at her best when describing people who have been pushed to the wall by circumstances — the single mom who is trying to find a way to pay for day care, the college student deluged with rising tuition costs. She can be quite funny in her speeches, but her humor is the humor of the counterattack — mostly sarcastic humor aimed at Republicans, the press and her critics.
The ironic fact is that she now bears the subliminal weight of scandals more heavily than Bill. That’s in part because he at least gives the appearance of putting any resentments he might have about them in the past. He seems emotionally loose, open and trusting. She often does not give that impression. Even the campaign posture bears signs of this defensive mindset. The walls around her inner circle are high. Gov. Martin O’Malley is certainly right when he says it is shocking that the Democratic primary process will feature a mere four debates before the first four states complete voting — a wall of protectiveness to seal off the front-runner.
This linebacker mentality means she is strong when she talks about defending, say, Social Security, and she has no illusions in foreign affairs. But there is little of the high-minded earnestness of the Adlai Stevenson campaigns, the futuristic aspiration of the John Kennedy campaign, the grand ambition of the Lyndon Johnson campaign, the new generation emotionality of Bill Clinton’s campaign or the uplifting hopefulness of the Barack Obama campaign.
We live in anxious times. You can respond to those times with a more radical political program, as Bernie Sanders is doing. You can answer with an anti-establishment burn-down-the-house campaign, as Donald Trump is doing. Or you can create a resurrection story, a creative narrative that builds a working majority on new grounds.
When Clinton was secretary of state it wasn’t clear whether she could go on offense and define a creative initiative in an open field. She hasn’t done that yet in this campaign, either. She hasn’t given voters a sense of an epic quest, an exodus to some promised land.
She’s still the prohibitive favorite to get the nomination, but we have yet to see if she can play offense. Campaigns do have to have some creative romance to them, an uplifting mood if not a new agenda.
So far Clinton has not creatively defined a new field in front of the country. Instead, she’s left a void others are filling.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.