2016-08-13 / Opinion

This election is not over

Cokie and Steven Roberts

True, Hillary Clinton is the heavy favorite. She leads Donald Trump by an average of 8 points in national polls, and she’s well ahead in key states Trump needs to win, like Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Republican Party remains fractured, and some GOPers are already dumping Trump and jumping ship.

But these developments obscure some critical factors that cloud the Clinton candidacy. As one realistic Democrat told The Washington Post: “We are sailing into spectacular headwinds.” Here are four reasons that Democrats should keep worrying about November.

There are only two slogans in politics: “It’s time for a change” and “You never had it so good.” Trump has it easy: He can run forcefully on the first slogan. It’s strong and simple and fits neatly in a bumper sticker or TV ad.

Clinton’s message is far more complicated – a combination of the two. Times are good, but not good enough. Democrats have done well, but can do better. At its core, it’s a mixed signal, a balancing act that lacks punch or clarity.

“Listen to Hillary Clinton,” reports The Wall Street Journal, “and it can seem like the best of times and the worst of times all at once.”

As a proud member of the Obama administration, she bristles with positive statistics: 15 million new jobs, 20 million more people with health insurance. But then she quickly adds, “The economy is not working the way it should for everyone ... We can’t be satisfied with the status quo. I’m not.”

Put another way, she’s running for Obama’s third term at a perilous time. The president’s personal popularity is healthy, but two-thirds of Americans say the country is headed down the wrong track. Fifty-six percent told the Journal that they wanted “major changes” from the next president, while only 41 percent favored a “steady approach.”

A “steady approach,” however, is exactly what Clinton is selling. When her husband, Bill, told the Democratic convention that she is “the best darn change-maker” around, even party loyalists had to wince at his description.

The second problem for Clinton is her flaws as a candidate. She’s not in Barack or Bill’s class as an inspirational speaker. Her gender injects an important element of excitement, and she enjoys a huge advantage with female voters, but she’s dragging a long chain of controversy behind her.

Only 1 in 3 voters calls her “honest and trustworthy” in a CBS poll, and she continues to feed that narrative with astoundingly inept responses to questions about her handling of classified emails during her tenure as secretary of state. Her latest blunder, saying she “short-circuited” her answers in an interview with Fox, has handed Trump a verbal bomb to plant under her campaign bus.

Clinton’s third enemy is history. America has never had a female president, and while her gender is an asset with many voters, it is a drawback with others – particularly less-educated white men. When Trump says she doesn’t look “presidential,” he’s clearly making a coded appeal to their sexist impulses.

Moreover, she faces an extremely difficult task: heading a party that has held the White House for two or more terms. Since the end of the Roosevelt-Truman administration 64 years ago, only one candidate, George Bush 41, has won under those circumstances. And he lost his re-election.

Six others have tried and failed: Adlai Stevenson in 1952, Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Al Gore in 2000 and John McCain in 2008. Add Jimmy Carter, who was defeated after one term, and the challenge is pretty obvious.

An essay in The Federalist, a conservative journal, explains why: “Governing exposes a coalition’s internal tensions and, as the saying goes, friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. The longer you are in power, the more people come up with reasons to blame you for things and consider giving the other guy a chance. The natural American distrust of our political class and distaste for permanent ruling parties is also an ingrained factor.”

Finally, Clinton is battling uncertainty. The election is still three months away. The debates will command huge audiences. Outside events, like a major terrorist attack, could alter the campaign’s trajectory. Trump shows few signs of becoming a disciplined, credible candidate, but he’s been counted out before. Many times.

Today, Clinton holds a clear lead. But anyone who thinks the outcome is guaranteed doesn’t understand the “headwinds” that are blowing right in her face.

— Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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