Democrats will break new ground this week when they officially nominate Hillary Clinton for president. She will be the first woman to win either party’s nomination for the White House and, like playing in the Super Bowl, it’s a signal achievement. But playing in the game isn’t the goal; winning it is.
To win November’s election, Clinton will have to overcome three principal obstacles: Republican nominee Donald Trump; the Democratic divisions exposed in her primary election battles with Bernie Sanders; and, perhaps most dauntingly, her own penchant for self-sabotage.
Dealing with outside challenges is a matter of strategy and staying on message. Changing one’s own nature is a more difficult task.
Clinton comes into the convention in weaker shape than another similarly experienced candidate would be, even given the unexpectedly tough primary fight put up by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. That was specifically because of her foolish decision as secretary of state to use a private email server, to summarily delete 30,000 emails as private in nature and, as FBI Director James Comey said, because of her “extremely careless” handling of sensitive and classified information.
The FBI’s conclusions eroded her support, but if the country has learned anything about the Clintons, it’s never to count them out. She lacks the natural political skills of her husband, but even her political opponents would acknowledge that she is at least as intelligent as Bill and as tough as nails.
Like Trump, but to a much lesser extent, she is facing a divided party. In her favor, though, Sanders has already endorsed her, so there will be no Democratic version of Ted Cruz’s overt, prime time refusal to endorse Trump.
But Clinton is, by nature, closer to the political center than Sanders and he has been tugging her to the left. To win the votes of his millions of disappointed voters, she will have to perform a balancing act that satisfies enough of them without losing the support of the centrists in her party or the independent voters all presidential candidates need to attract. The task of attracting Sanders supporters became more difficult over the weekend when hacked emails seemed to suggest the party actively favored Clinton over Sanders.
Her selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate won’t help there, either. He is from Virginia, a swing state, where he has also been a governor and mayor. He is seen as pragmatic and appealing to independents and Midwesterners.
But the party’s liberal wing is dubious. They wanted someone who, like Sanders, is more critical of Wall Street. They also say Kaine’s support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership could hurt the ticket’s ability to attract votes from liberals. Clinton may calculate, though, that they would still rather see her in the White House than Trump, despite his criticism of trade deals in general and the TPP in particular.
Still, it’s rare for a vice presidential pick to make the difference between winning and losing. The election is about the person at the top of the ticket. That gives Clinton the double-edged task of reintroducing herself this week to a country that has followed her at least since 1992, when Bill Clinton won the presidency.
The good news for her is that she won the nomination despite the fact that Democrats know her warts. From Whitewater and the White House, the State Department and Benghazi, she has been vetted and vetted and vetted. However Republicans may seek to portray her over the coming months, Americans by and large understand what they are getting with her. She is a known quantity.
But that also is the challenge. Many Americans, including many Democrats, don’t entirely trust her. The email episode was only the most recent instance, but its nature and timing make it the most dangerous for her candidacy.
So she will also have to give Americans reason to believe that she has learned something from this especially bad decision and that they can trust her to make smart decisions going forward. A more straightforward acknowledgement of her failings as she addresses the convention would help with that.
That won’t be fun, but it’s the task that she went out of the way to create for herself.