Without a credible challenge emerging in the Democratic Party (yet, anyway), Hillary Clinton should feel free to break outside of traditional liberal strongholds to increase her reach in the general election. Instead, the New York Times discovers that Hillary has stuck to friendly turf to the extent possible in her nascent ground campaign. Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman report that this strategy has Democrats worried that Hillary may aim for a base-turnout election rather than a broad strategy necessary for a national win — and coattails:
Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be dispensing with the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats.
Instead, she is poised to retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.
Mrs. Clinton’s aides say it is the only way to win in an era of heightened polarization, when a declining pool of voters is truly up for grabs. Her liberal policy positions, they say, will fire up Democrats, a less difficult task than trying to win over independents in more hostile territory — even though a broader strategy could help lift the party with her.
This early in the campaign, however, forgoing a determined outreach effort to all 50 states, or even most of them, could mean missing out on the kind of spirited conversation that can be a unifying feature of a presidential election. And it could leave Mrs. Clinton, if she wins, with the same difficulties Mr. Obama has faced in governing with a Republican-controlled Congress.
This kind of strategy would be puzzling no matter the dynamics of a particular presidential race. It’s doubly or triply puzzling with Hillary facing no substantial challenge for the nomination. In part, though, this is driven by Hillary’s determination to cut off any potential challenger before one emerges by locking up the progressive grassroots of the party. She can’t very well campaign in purple or red areas while promoting the progressive, top-down, big-government agenda, not without creating potentially embarrassing reactions and exchanges with voters inclined to distrust those solutions after six years of incompetence in the Obama administration. Since there are fewer options for a challenge to her right — save for Jim Webb, maybe — Hillary wants to take the safe route.
If Team Hillary thinks they can copy Obama’s 2012 strategy, though, they are missing a couple of critical points. Obama won in 2008 by employing a 50-state strategy, which was pretty easy to do with his organization and in the wake of Bush fatigue. The 2012 strategy worked because many voters still had an emotional connection to that 2008 vote, and Republicans didn’t offer anything inspirational to take its place. That’s the power of incumbency, even in a flabby recovery that offered much more stagnation than dynamism.
Hillary Clinton won’t have any connection to either the incumbency or the emotional connection that drove Obama’s narrow win over Mitt Romney in 2012 — except perhaps for the baggage of Obama’s policies and their failures, especially on the economy and foreign policy. She already brings in plenty of her own baggage, which have turned her favorables upside down in record time. Obama’s emergence at least suggested the potential for a new kind of politics, but the Clintons are running on establishment nostalgia.
Sticking to a base strategy will only compound the problems her candidacy will produce for Democrats, in part because even the Clinton-friendly base isn’t exactly fired up about her. Frank Bruni captured the Democratic angst over Hillary’s presidential bid in a column this weekend at the Times, whose companions find themselves utterly disillusioned but grimly determined to support her. “Straightforward admiration is no longer possible,” Bruni writes in an understatement:
LATELY I’ve been running into people even more put off by the Clintons than the nefarious operatives in the “vast right wing conspiracy” ever were.
They’re called Democrats.
I had breakfast with one last week. I’d quote him directly, but The Times doesn’t permit profanity. …
But the Clintons facilitate a thrilling scenario only to pollute it. They come wrapped in shiny folds of promise and good intentions, then the packaging comes off, and what lies beneath are emails from Sidney Blumenthal,shakedowns of Petra Nemcova.
Do they even “come wrapped in shiny folds of promise” these days? Maybe 23 years ago, if then. Perhaps true believers bought that at the beginning of this campaign from a lack of other options, but are now left wondering what hit them when the scope of the corruption surrounding the Clintons once again became clear. This entire campaign has been a grim adventure, watching Hillary suppress a field that had already been devastated by Obama’s impact on state and local elections in his six years as President. Democrats have locked in on the Next In Line, falling into what had been a Republican trap in presidential elections, and now find that their candidate can’t play outside of the urban-elite circles who shrugged off her baggage in order to calculate their best angle to retaining power.
Republicans have many more options to find an inspirational or at least more relatable figure, one who can step outside the Beltway establishment and speak to all audiences and promote a more positive agenda than “Yesterday When I Was Young.” If they manage to do that, the safe zones for Team Hillary will keep getting narrower and narrower, and the GOP could rewrite the map in presidential elections — and perhaps the Senate and House races as well.