Hillary Clinton should try being happy as a campaign tactic. When she’s on top of the world, she’s a formidable candidate.
“There’s no place like home,” she said after winning the April 19 Democratic primary in her adopted home state of New York by more than 15 points.
For once, there was no enthusiasm gap and her full-throttle shouting matched the mood of the crowd. She crowed that the path to the nomination was now a straight line and how her campaign “is the only one – Democratic or Republican – to win more than 10 million votes.” Take that Donald Trump.
In victory, she had a different tone than in her debate with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders the previous week, when she went at her rival as if he had to be killed. This time, she scarcely acknowledged his existence. Other than a wish for unity, her only reference to her competitor was a veiled jibe at hopeless dreamers who “diagnose a problem” but have no way to solve it.
Being ignored is worse than being pounded. Sanders may or may not drop out, but Clinton is treating him as if he has. You could see closure on her face as she moved on to attacking the Republicans who stand between her and the Oval Office. “Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are pushing a vision for America that is divisive and frankly dangerous,” she said as she listed their views on immigration, Muslims, women and workers.
If Clinton’s arrival at this point had not been gradual, we’d have to pinch ourselves to believe we weren’t watching a made-for-TV movie. She’s already made history: the first first lady to move out of the White House a year early to establish residency in New York, a state she’d visited only as a tourist, and proceed to win a Senate seat there – twice. Yes, she lost her first try for the presidential nomination in 2008 to President Barack Obama but rebounded by becoming secretary of state.
Now she’s poised to return to the White House, this time in charge, with none of the nonsense about the East Wing invading the West Wing or butting in where she doesn’t belong, with or without a headband. Anyone who would have predicted any of this when Clinton was one of the most unpopular first ladies ever (until Monica made her sympathetic) would have been laughed out of politics.
There’s only one chink in this fairy tale. Clinton may have put Sanders behind her, but what the 74-year-old socialist with the wild hair and no rope-line manners managed to do remains a cloud hanging over her head. How could such a nobody turn a planned coronation into a long, hard slog? He changed the debate. He awoke a new generation to politics. He raised all the money he needed without ever going begging to Hollywood or Wall Street. All that and he squeezed in a visit with the pope.
And Sanders overcame the huge obstacles thrown up by the Democratic establishment and the media. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz initially cut the debates to a scant six from 26 in 2008. Trump and Clinton events were covered live; Sanders was lucky to get a recap. the Tyndall Report, which monitors the network newscasts, found that ABC devoted 261 minutes to the campaign in 2015: Trump got 81 minutes and Sanders got 20 seconds. That proportion largely continued until the press began to cover Sanders’ rallies as a phenomenon (27,000 people!) but not as an achievement that meant anything because it was understood from the beginning that he couldn’t win. That didn’t much change even as Sanders won eight of the last nine contests.
As the New York primary approached, the calendar and the expectations couldn’t have been worse. Sanders had to upset Hillary in a state she’s lived in for 16 years, which she served as a senator, and that is home to the Clinton Foundation, her daughter and granddaughter. To be taken seriously in a state where independents can’t vote in primaries, he’d have to knock 20 years off his age and add the same number of years to his supporters. He needed to expand his harangue about the corrupt state of our politics, the difficult straits of the working class, and how one is connected to the other. He needed to find some new chords in his siren song.
He didn’t do those things and he didn’t win. But that he’s lasted this long is a testament to Clinton’s difficulties being the happy warrior she was in New York. She is easily irritated when someone beneath her threatens her inevitability. She should pray that Cruz, the most hated man in Washington, is her opponent, rather than Trump, who is way more of an upstart than Sanders.
Polls show that she can beat Trump. Still, if she thinks Sanders was unfairly harsh – he got rattled recently but overall he did as much to elevate public discourse as Trump has done to debase it – meet “Little Marco” and “low-energy Bush” and “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump was subdued and serious after winning in New York, slighting no one, but he recently tried out “Crooked Hillary” to see if it sticks. It might not. But he has time to come up with another. Advice to Clinton: Don’t worry. Be happy.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.