The prospect of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination for president makes me very nervous. But nowhere near as nervous as the prospect of him running against Hillary Clinton in the general election.
It shouldn't be that way. We have every reason to think that, running against a compelling center-left candidate, Trump would end up losing in the biggest popular-vote landslide since Richard Nixon slaughtered George McGovern in 1972. Trump has the highest unfavorable ratings (nearly 58 percent) of anyone running for president this cycle. His outrageous, rude, racist, sexist, and vulgar tirades, not to mention a long and murky history of largely unexamined business dealings, make him an extremely ripe target. A strong opponent would leave him in the dust.
But Hillary Clinton is not a strong opponent — against Trump, or anyone else.
The problem isn't ideology. As a center-left neoliberal, Clinton fits right into a political sweet spot — affirming the importance of reality-based policy expertise at home and abroad; showing a willingness to cut deals to get things done; and displaying an appreciation for the crucial importance of markets in generating economic growth, along with a recognition that tough-minded regulations (and a generous safety net) are needed to minimize the corruption and injustices to which markets are prone. This combination of idealism and pragmatism grows out of the core neoliberal aim of creating a society as fair as possible within a world of intransigent political and economic constraints.
In comparison to the xenophobic bombast of Donald Trump, a smart and savvy neoliberal candidate should look like a paragon of prudence — and the stronger choice by far to lead the nation.
Unless that neoliberal candidate is Hillary Clinton.
The issue isn't Clinton's gender. Want to blame sexism for the dearth of viable female presidential candidates in the United States? I'll be right there with you. But the distinctive troubles of this particular female presidential candidate are not primarily a function of misogyny. They follow, instead, from the U-Haul full of baggage that she brings with her everywhere she goes.
Like Pig-Pen from Peanuts, Bill and Hillary Clinton go through life trailed by a cloud of filth. It might be unfair that a good amount of the dirt has been kicked up by their enemies on the right. But that's politics. And anyway, it wasn't Republicans who pushed Bill to conduct an affair with an intern and then lie about it under oath. Or convinced Hillary to use an off-the-books email account for sensitive government communication while she served as secretary of state. Or persuaded U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (a Bill Clinton appointee) to rule on Tuesday that State Department officials and top Clinton aides should be questioned in the matter. Or led Judge Sullivan to suggest from the bench that at some point he might order the Justice Department to subpoena Clinton aide Huma Abedin — and even Clinton herself.
Even without a subpoena (or indictment), Clinton is widely disliked and distrusted. Trump may have the highest unfavorable rating of anyone running for president, but his closest rival for that honor (now that Jeb Bush has given up his bid for the White House) is none other than… Hillary! Is it really so hard to imagine Trump beating her in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida?
Talk about squandering what should be an enormous Democratic advantage.
So is Bernie Sanders the answer? Not on your life. I don't care how many head-to-head polls show him beating Trump. Sanders is still an unknown quantity to most Americans. As soon as the Republican nominee begins to point out that Bernie's agenda consists of a laundry list of socialist pipe dreams that would never make it more than half-an-inch through Congress — and that, if enacted, would require confiscatory tax rates and economically strangulating regulations — his support would crumble.
Then there's the wild card of Michael Bloomberg jumping into the middle of a Trump v. Sanders contest and trying to grab the alienated metro-centrist vote. Where would that leave us?
With very little, I'm afraid.
Donald Trump is tearing the Republican Party to pieces and aiming to become the nation's demagogue-in-chief. Apparently the Democrats can do no better than running against him with damaged goods.
I suppose it's possible that the email scandal will fizzle and fade — and that Trump will then prove so repulsive to so many that Clinton will prevail despite it all. Or maybe Democrats (and the country) will catch a break and the subpoenas and indictments will come down this winter and spring, giving the party a chance to draft someone else into the race — Joe Biden? Elizabeth Warren? — at the convention.
With the stakes so enormously high, I only wish we weren't reduced to crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.