Sunday's Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that Hillary Clinton’s numbers have fallen drastically in the last month, and the race is now a dead heat with Donald Trump, with 41% of registered voters supporting each candidate. The only really shocking thing about this is that her opponent is the most deeply- flawed major party nominee to have run for the US presidency in generations, one who has regularly made the most odious, racist and misogynistic remarks, and whom even most Republican luminaries, including all recent presidents and presidential nominees, have refused to back.
This is today’s America. The people want change at all costs; they feel, rightly, that they have been let down by both major political parties.
To be fair, Mrs Clinton was not the strongest candidate, but she is miles better than Trump. And she had scraped through a year of primaries and then staged a brilliant Convention, winning over many sceptics with her passionately-expressed commitment to addressing the growing travails of working Americans.
But soon after, there was growing alarm among her supporters over her campaign’s direction, which changed inexplicably once she had pulled convincingly ahead of Donald Trump after the Convention. They were naturally reluctant to go public for fear of undermining her.
But they finally did, after the campaign’s near-suicidal handling of Mrs Clinton’s pneumonia-induced collapse two weeks ago. The campaign spokesman and she herself essentially said she was fine, even though a dramatic video showing her very unwell repeatedly played on television screens throughout the day. At day’s end, it was finally announced she had been diagnosed with pneumonia two days earlier. Had that been stated soon after her collapse, the damage would have been immediately limited.
The supporters’ anger was best captured in a biting tweet by the legendary architect of President Obama’s election, David Axelrod, whose credibility probably makes him Mrs Clinton’s most influential media advocate. Choosing to implicitly address Mrs Clinton herself rather than the campaign, he asserted that “antibiotics can take care of pneumonia, but what's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?"
Two days earlier, Mrs Clinton had in fact made an even more damaging, albeit less dramatic, faux pas with a very deliberate remark that about half of Trump supporters were bigots of all stripes – that’s about 25 million or so Americans. These two unfortunate events, both entirely avoidable, confirmed for too many the deadly narratives that Mrs Clinton had been fighting against – that she was secretive and dishonest, did not relate to the concerns of everyday Americans, and was suffering a serious illness. And then the poll numbers started dropping.
A looming crisis of unfathomable proportions now faces the United States. Two months ago, most of us breathed huge sighs of relief as we saw what seemed – finally! – to be the irreversible unraveling of Trump’s campaign. But he was smart enough and bold enough to yet again shake up his campaign’s leadership, and a ‘new’ Trump emerged right after, who acts like he had never uttered any odious thoughts, has cut down on his gaffes, and makes policy proposals, however imprecise. Lo and behold, he surged in the polls. Sometimes it’s not rocket science.
It’s very late in the day but there is still a chance for Mrs Clinton’s campaign to renew itself. Essentially, she needs to return to the basics that had finally put her in a commanding position in mid-summer, when at the convention she had won the unqualified support of Bernie Sanders, her link to the progressives and independents crucial to her defeating Donald Trump in November. The Democratic platform was the most progressive ever. Her numbers rose. Trump’s fell, thanks to another round of self-inflicted wounds alienating broad segments of the public.
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I am very Hillary-sceptic, and had supported Bernie Sanders as I thought he was the infinitely better candidate, but also because I believed that she had too many negatives to defeat Trump in this 2016 America. But while I didn’t think her Convention performance meant she had transformed, I did believe that she had pivoted brilliantly, having recognized that doubts about her trustworthiness, her ties to Wall Street and her hawkish interventionism would sink her, and that her commitment to her new campaign model was real. She seemed set to go the White House, to everyone’s relief if not joy.
What happened next is a genuine mystery. Soon after the Convention, she inexplicably took a series of steps which were anathema to millennials, progressives and independents. The campaign must have decided these groups were now securely in her camp (even though all polls showed they needed tending) and that it was the very rich, the Republicans and the national security establishment she now needed to focus on. So there was little talk from her about tackling college costs, the well-paying jobs going abroad, climate change or fixing the system that was controlled by the superrich.
So instead of articulating precisely what she stood for, which voters repeatedly indicate they are uncertain of, Mrs Clinton began focusing primarily on attacking Mr Trump’s many character shortcomings, but replicating his brutish language lost her the advantage of high ground. She also began invoking Ronald Reagan as one of her models, unabashedly set about creating an alliance of billionaires, many of them Republicans, and started hanging out with celebrities at their posh August retreats. As a New York Times headline read, Where Has Hillary Clinton Been? Ask the Ultra Rich. The campaign seemed to have forgotten that most voters now know that those giving her tens of millions of dollars would not countenance policies she had promised to pursue.
Most startling, though, was Mrs Clinton’s decision to virtually disappear from the campaign trail for all of August. Was she in fact unwell and needed an extended break? Or had she decided that her priority was raising millions of more dollars, for advertising to undermine Trump through highlighting his limitless capacity to voice racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic views? Or did the campaign believe that letting Trump hog the spotlight would see him continue on his self-destructive path?
Despite Axelrod and others having spoken, mistakes are still abounding and panic seems to have set in. President Obama last week passionately implored African Americans to support her if they wanted to protect his legacy, adding that she was being held to “unfair” standards - hardly a ringing Hillary endorsement. She herself said at a rally that she is aware that some who are totally opposed to Trump still have questions about her, and in a speech to the Laborers International Union on Thursday angrily asked them why she “wasn’t 50 points ahead” of Trump, given her pro-worker positions.
That someone like Trump is where he is now says a lot about where the United States is now. There is a real hunger for change, but the country’s national elites, including the media, and the leaderships of both major parties have chosen to ignore it - the system has been doing just fine for their main constituents, the well-to-do, whose wealth buys them an insider’s seat at the high table where national policies. For three decades, millionaires, billionaires and their corporations have seen their taxes fall and their fortunes soar, while ordinary Americans’ well-being, as well as their schools, neighborhoods, social services and roads and bridges, have been falling apart.
If Donald Trump becomes President, which is still far from determined, there will be lots of blame to spread around. But she herself will be the principal cause, along with the corrupt Democratic machine and the media, which first built up Trump, then openly sided with Hillary and marginalized Sanders, and finally turned strongly against Trump, angering many into opposing Hillary.
Only Bernie Sanders got it.