Everybody who has ever worked for Hillary Clinton, covered her, supported her with clutched rosary and gnarled innards through the darkest days — or even watched her with educated interest from afar — knew this moment would come.
With two months to go before the presidential election, a major poll released Tuesday morning (CNN/ORC) revealed that the “prohibitive favorite” (Clinton) is down by 2 points nationally to one of the worst presidential candidates since the advent of the indoor flush toilet: Donald J. Trump.
Which just goes to show: No one — not the bullpen of the New York Mets, not the French army, not Wile E. Coyote, not even Al Gore — is better at squandering a commanding lead than the Queen of Coasting, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And nobody is better at handing her adversaries talking points to undermine trust, on emails, on the Clinton Foundation, on her own refusal to do something as simple as talking to the reporters who cover her every day.
The underlying reasons behind her pre-fall fade have always been lurking in the shadows, I’ve learned after having hundreds of conversations with her people over the years. Clinton is still queasy about electoral politics as a profession, grinds it out because it’s the only path to power, is allergic to most media and, in general, does thebare minimum required to get by. This is not a formula for a happy-warrior candidacy, and it is exceptionally dangerous at a time when her enemies (with a big assist from the Democratic nominee) have driven her unpopularity down into Trump-ian depths.
This is not to say she’s likely to lose — most polls of polls still have her as a 75 percent favorite — because, fortunately for her, there’s a second core element to Clinton’s political personality: a stubborn resilience and a tendency to shatter the glass ceiling of her own shortcomings when she’s facing a moment of crisis. And make no mistake, she’s approaching one right now.
Here are five reasons why Clinton let Trump back into the race:
1. Trump’s listening. The prospect of becoming a historical punch line clarifies the mind, like the foreshadowed echo of “You’re fired!” headed in the wrong direction. The guy who mocked President Barack Obama and Clinton for reading off a teleprompter is getting better at being scripted — and his willingness, at long last, to follow the most rudimentary rules of political campaigning urged by staff (i.e. shutting up) has made him seem somewhat less terrifying. Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is showing up, and you still get 400 points by signing your name at the top of the SAT. Likewise, a once ungovernable candidate is making up ground by playing clumsily by the rules in a country that remains cleaved in half along partisan lines.
Remember those days of yore (a few weeks ago) when Trump’s campaign was in utter disarray, Clinton was leading by double digits in state and national polls and every investigative reporter with health insurance and a laptop was chasing nefarious tales of campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s shady dealings in Ukraine?
Those days are gone, at least for now. Trump still might not have any real policy plans, or any functional state-level organizations, but he has finally gotten himself a competent, reality-based communications and messaging team. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, a veteran pollster with a credible, friendly and effervescent TV presence and a theory of the case, seems to have made a real difference — in leading by example.
The tempering of his anger — with a reassurance that he can actually govern — is the key to unlocking the only path to victory Trump really has: winning Florida and sweeping through the Appalachians and upper Midwest. Coincidence or not, the most significant inroads Trump has made since hiring Conway (and enlisting deposed Fox News czar Roger Ailes) have been in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Clinton’s once-commanding leads have shrunk to low single digits.
The Trump Tower team is pinning its chances on the hope that Trump’s house-training period will be mercifully short — and voters’ memories even shorter.
2. Clinton made her campaign exclusively about Trump. Bad idea. One of the underlying realities of 2016 — a quotidian truth swept away by the tangerine tornado — is that Clinton is running for Obama’s third term, and no Democrat since Harry S. Truman has succeeded when following a multi-term POTUS. The electorate is restless and wants change, and no candidate is less equipped by virtue of history, temperament or the tenor of the times to take advantage of that sentiment than Clinton. In fact, the only reason she commands a natural advantage (apart from her party’s innate grip on the Electoral College) is the fact that she is running against Mr. Unacceptable, and is marginally less detested.
It’s the obvious strategy to hammer Trump for everything he’s said — and the campaign has slashed at his jugular with mechanical consistency, producing a series of devastating ads intended to slay the GOP nominee with his own words. They have succeeded in pushing the Republican nominee off the popularity cliff (or at least nudged him as he jumped), trapping Trump below the critical 40 percent threshold in the vast majority of national and battleground state polls.
It’s not enough. It was telling that when Clinton did briefly emerge from her late-summer gilded hibernation, it was to attack, not to endear — delivering a blistering speech in Reno, Nevada, that labeled her opponent a racist and xenophobe, a speech several of her top advisers thought was her best of the campaign. In the days that followed, the dial moved, but not in her direction.
The problem, and it has dogged Clinton since she first ran for office in 2000, is that she’s lousy at self-definition, doesn’t like to make the campaign about her (not one of Trump’s problems) and reveals herself only in jagged broken-mirror shards, not a portrait in full for voters to warm themselves by. Back in July, Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook told me he thought the only way people would get to know Clinton was to watch her govern. “I don’t think people will fully appreciate who she is until, knock on wood, she’s elected president, because when she is president, I think — I think she will be phenomenally successful because she’s a workhorse,” he said.
But politics doesn’t work that way. Never mind questions of character: Many voters simply don’t have a clear idea of what her personality is, so it’s easy to accept caricature imposed upon her by her enemies. People don’t like her because they don’t know her — that’s the core counterargument from her intimates — but Clinton (who coined the term “zone of privacy” in 1992 to define her attitude toward self-revelation) is an uncooperative client. So that makes her uncommonly vulnerable to events, or changes in campaign climate that undermine faith in her cause — such as her August-long hiatus to fundraise, various new stories on her emails and the Clinton Foundation, and the sudden professionalization of Trump’s messaging operation.
What Clinton is, in reality, is a complicated and paradoxical person who is resistant to political packaging. “She’s [not] looking at things in some crazy Lady Macbeth way,” Neera Tanden, one of Clinton’s longest-tenured advisers, told me last week. “What I’ve never understood about her is this space she rents in people’s heads. Like, she’s a person. She’s a normal person. She laughs. She cries. She’s not normal, OK, maybe ‘normal’ is overstated, but it’s not … [there’s] a grand theory behind everything she does.”
Clinton’s top advisers and pollsters have labored hard to find areas where she can connect with voters — and have succeeded from time to time, especially when she relates her own early commitment to social justice to her mother’s struggles as a child cast adrift during the Depression. But they have largely thrown up their hands when it comes to changing core opinions of her. “We are not going to change people’s minds about her in two months,” said one longtime aide. “We weren’t able to do it in two years.”
But they have to try, as several acknowledged to me over the past couple of weeks, and the first debate, scheduled for Sept. 26 on Long Island, is shaping up to be less a litmus test of Trump’s viability than a test of Clinton’s ability to close the deal.
3. Donald Trump flip-flopped on immigration (then re-flipped), and his voters don’t seem to care. Trump has chutzpah — no doubt about it — and he attempted his most audacious move yet, one of the greatest switcheroos in the annals of modern campaigning. In the doldrums of late August, in ways opaque and fuzzy-wuzzy, he rolled back his campaign-defining commitment to be the immigration badass who was going to sweep the Southern border clean of all those illegal rapists, criminals, job stealers pouring across from Mexico.
This isn’t a tweak on a Web page; it’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” on ‘roids. Immigration wasn’t just an issue in the primary, it was cited, in exit poll after exit poll, as the central reason many Republican voters were willing to abandon the mealy-mouthed establishment in favor of the tougher Trump. And during the primary, there was zero ambiguity about Trump’s immigration stance, both in terms of policy and tone: He wanted to build a wall, get Mexico to pay for it, and create a deportation force to throw 11 million undocumented aliens out, while cracking down on what he portrayed as rampant criminality brought into the U.S. by the invaders.
Suddenly, a strategic squish. The wall — which has no chance of ever being built, let alone paid for by Mexico — still stands rhetorically, as does his no-path-to-citizenship pledge. But nearly everything else has, in his own words, been subject to “softening,” to the point where many longtime border watchers see little concrete difference between his new plans and Obama’s existing strategy — secure the border, deport criminals and come up with a “humane” way to send illegals back home, allowing for their possible return at a later date.
How is he getting away with it? For one, the media have been focused on the performance aspect of his content-free trip to Mexico — lauding it as presidential (i.e., he stood at a podium politely, read from a script and didn’t insult anybody). But the main reason is that his voters don’t give a damn. They want him to beat Clinton and seem willing to let him say or do anything to keep her out of power. “My voters don’t care, and the public doesn’t care,” about the fine print of his policy proposals, even on the biggest issues, Trump told Time earlier this year — prophetically.
4. Shaky foundation. There haven’t been any real smoking guns regarding influence-peddling, profiteering or even preferential treatment regarding the Clintons’ family foundation and its relationship to decisions made by Clinton as secretary of state. The link between improper access and corrupt action, while implied, has yet to be proven. But there have been plenty of drip-drip revelations, including recent reports that top Clinton aides sought to grant Foggy Bottom access to a Nigerian businessman who had contributed to the foundation.
All of this may turn out to be smoke — and Clinton’s staff and surrogates counter (with not insignificant justification) that the foundation has done groundbreaking and life-saving work on AIDS and other issues — but the Trump campaign has been relentless in promoting every negative story written about the charity. Politics isn’t fair, and Democrats grouse that not nearly enough attention is being paid to Trump’s very questionable charitable foundation (and history of failing to follow through on commitments made to veterans groups), but a narrative is clearly taking hold.
Senior Democrats tell me that at least two recent focus groups, one held by the campaign, the other by an allied outside group, have shown a major increase in voters’ concerns about inside dealing at the Clinton Foundation, to a point where it has fused in their minds with the lingering email controversy. And people close to the situation told me that coordination between Clinton’s campaign — which has largely viewed the issue as the responsibility of her husband and his staff — has been bad. “Her people, the folks running her campaign, think it’s not their problem and want Bill to deal with it,” a person in Clinton’s orbit told me over the weekend.
5. It might just be a blip. The CNN poll — which put a jolt into Democrats because it was based on a more predictive likely-voter model — was taken during the last, sleepy week of summer, at a time when Clinton’s profile was intentionally low and Trump had the stage all to himself. And another big poll — a massive canvas of 74,000 voters in all 50 states by The Washington Post and Survey Monkey — shows Clinton making serious inroads into deep red states like Texas, Georgia and Arizona.
When I asked a senior Clinton adviser for a prediction last week, the official responded with a shrug: “For the past month, people have been saying it’s a 7-point race [in favor of Clinton], but we’ve always been thinking of it as a 4- to 5-point race.”