You could not pick a worse, more inept, inexperienced or offensive joke of a presidential candidate than Donald Trump. The United States has become the butt of international ridicule over our very own “Kim Jong-Un.” Any candidate running against Trump from the opposing major party with a pulse ought to be beating him in the polls by double digits. But Hillary Clinton isn’t.
The Democratic nominee is barely ahead of “the most unpopular presidential candidate since the former head of the Ku Klux Klan,” and a recent CNN poll puts her at 2 percent behind Trump. Granted, it is only one poll, and several other recent polls have found her a few percentage points ahead. Still, no Democrat could ask for an easier Republican candidate to beat. In the history of American presidential races, it is likely we have never had a more comically unsuitable figure as Trump nominated by a major party. And yet Clinton is struggling to come out ahead.
The Democrat’s ardent supporters—those who have championed her from Day One—claim that we live in a sexist country and that her gender is what is standing in the way of most Americans embracing her. They assert that the media and her critics hold her to an unfairly high standard. But in a country where white women have benefited far more from affirmative action policies, how is it that we easily elected the nation’s first black president twice, only to stumble over a white female nominee?
The problem is not her gender. Of course, many might refuse to vote for a woman (as I’m sure racist Americans refused to vote for Obama simply because he is black), but many more might vote for her because she is a woman. While there is no way to be certain that the two forces cancel each other out, Clinton’s gender is not her biggest liability. Her refusal to even attempt to embrace bold progressive values and her inability to read the simmering nationwide anger over economic and racial injustice are the larger obstacles to her popularity.
In positioning herself first and foremost as what she is not—Trump—Clinton is picking only the low-hanging fruit. My 9-year-old son could make fun of Trump in clever ways, and does so routinely. For Clinton to fixate on Trump’s endless flaws suggests that her own platform has little substance. For example, in a recent speech she said of Trump, “He says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. The secret is, he has no plan.” While these kinds of statements might make for funny one-liners, Clinton’s main credential is that she once led the State Department, and she did so with such hawkishness that Americans who are weary of endless wars are not impressed by the experience. (Not to mention that she was caught telling lies about her private email server while secretary of state.) If she proposed diplomacy over war, a plan to exit Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria, a promise to withhold weapons from Saudi Arabia, a commitment to Palestinian human rights, and so on, voters might sit up and take note.
On domestic issues, Clinton is failing to articulate a progressive vision as well. A recently leaked memo revealed that the Democratic Party views Black Lives Matter as a “radical” movement and should not “offer support for concrete policy positions.” Troy Perry, who wrote the memo, now is part of Clinton’s campaign team. Rather than quickly rebutting the memo and affirming her full support for the movement, Clinton has remained silent. Meanwhile, BLM issued a pointed response, saying, “We deserve to be heard, not handled.”
Black voters tend to vote Democratic—a fact the party has taken for granted for decades. But if Clinton wants to earn those votes, she could take a page out of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s book and visit (or send a representative to visit) the ongoing occupation of Los Angeles City Hall by Black Lives Matter activists. BLM is calling on Mayor Eric Garcetti to fire Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck over a spate of killings by officers that has made his department the most violent of all departments nationwide. Instead, Clinton goes to Beverly Hills for a fundraiser to hobnob with wealthy donors and celebrities, including Garcetti.
Clinton has also failed to offer bold thinking on the hot-button issue of immigration. Trump, in a recent controversial visit to Mexico, reiterated his bizarre plan to build a border wall and have our southern neighbor pay for it. Though Clinton stands nowhere near such a plan—and does not embrace Trump’s announcement to ban Muslims—she does share with him some troubling aspects of an inhumane, enforcement-heavy approach to immigration, including the use of biometric data to track the undocumented. She has gone on record as saying, “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in. ... And I do think you have to control your borders.” She also voted for a 2006 bill that called for a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border that’s only a few hundred miles shorter than what Trump is proposing. If Clinton wanted to excite her Latino base, she could take a far bolder stance, admitting that she was wrong on her earlier positions and offering a humane vision, more in line with the one Bernie Sanders articulated that won him broad support.
Rather than reaching out to American voters on such issues, Clinton has been busy pandering to one particular community: the uber-rich. According to a New York Times article, she has made multiple trips to wealthy enclaves over the past month alone. In addition to Beverly Hills, she has visited Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons, rubbing elbows with celebrities and other rich elites. Just in August she raised more than $140 million through such fundraisers—easy fodder for the GOP to criticize in a new set of ads.
While making herself accessible to America’s upper classes, she has made herself almost completely unavailable to the press. Until Thursday, Clinton had not held a single news conference in 2016, inviting the unflattering comparison to President George W. Bush, who came under fire for avoiding interactions with the media. Bush was skewered for acting like he was hiding something, afraid the press might ask hard questions that would invite a blundering response. Clinton, one could argue, does not need to win over the press—most mainstream outlets already embrace her nomination and are pushing hard for her election. A recent article by Paul Krugman in the Times is a prime example. Ordinary Americans, however, continue to be unimpressed.
Perhaps Clinton feels that she can win without trying. After all, she has said publicly to her supporters, “I stand between you and the apocalypse.” She is positioning herself as a better option for president than the apocalyptic one. But that’s not saying much. And perhaps that is the point.
Maybe Clinton thinks she does not need to win over ordinary Americans. She knows she has the support of the Wall Street elite, the Pentagon war hawks and even a growing number of Republicans, one of whom implored his fellow Republicans to save the party by voting for Clinton.
And yet all of that may not be enough, as the polls are showing. What Americans are looking for is bold, visionary thinking that acknowledges how broken Washington, D.C., is at our collective expense. The majority of Americans do not want measured, lukewarm progressive positions that keep systems intact. This is why Sanders, in calling for a “political revolution,” attracted so many new and independent voters, especially young millennials. This is why Trump is gaining traction, because between the two major-party candidates, his pathetic piñata-inspiring figure is offering the bolder rhetoric.
If Clinton loses this election, it will not be because Americans are dumb, racist misogynists who would cut off their noses to spite their faces in refusing to elect a sane woman over an insane man. It will not be because too many Americans “selfishly” voted for a third party or didn’t vote at all. It will be because Clinton refused to compromise her allegiance to Wall Street and the morally bankrupt center-right establishment positions of her party and chose not to win over voters. This election is hers to lose, and if this nation ends up with President Trump, it will be most of all the fault of Clinton and the Democratic Party that backs her.