Why is Hillary Clinton talking like Bernie Sanders?
President Obama was at his unifying best at the Democratic National Convention. As many commentators pointed out, you would only have to take out a few sentences here and there to make it a Ronald Reagan speech. He spoke about the values that all Americans share. When he attacked Donald Trump, he seemed to attack him from the right as much as the left. Instead of painting him as the true face of the Republican Party — resentment-based white identity politics — Obama described Trump as "not Republican" and "not conservative." In the speech's most stirring moment, the president criticized Trump in terms that all anti-Trump conservatives can embrace: He's an authoritarian who believes that America's problems need to be solved through his personal rule, not through the wisdom of the American people, as America's Founding Fathers intended.
America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. In fact, it doesn't depend on any one person. And that in the end may be the biggest difference in this election: the meaning of our democracy. Ronald Reagan called America a shining city on a hill. Donald Trump calls it a divided crime scene only he can fix. (...) We're not a fragile people. We're not a frightful people. Our power doesn't come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don't look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that we, the people, can form a more perfect union. That's who we are. That's our birthright. [Obama]
Ted Cruz couldn't have put it better! (Really, go back and read those lines again and imagine them in Ted Cruz's voice. It works.)
Hillary Clinton's speech was different. Although she rightly hit Trump on the threats he poses to republican self-government, she also hit him more specifically on national security and other issues. And more importantly, she delivered a speech that can only be described as left-wing, reaching out to Bernie Sanders voters, promising free college tuition for most Americans, and doubling down on identity politics, suggesting, at least subtly, that her gender is a reason to vote for her.
Obama gave a speech to all Americans. Clinton gave a speech addressed to the left wing of her party.
That's strange. In a presidential campaign, the nominee typically puts forward the most unifying rhetoric. And then it's up to surrogates to rally the base and fire broadsides at the opponent.
Now, Clinton has had a tough time unifying her party after the bruising primary fight with Sanders, and she's moved to the left to appease them. But that doesn't explain everything. After all, your convention nominating speech is the way for you, as a candidate, to introduce yourself to the broad spectrum of the American people, instead of rallying your base in the primary.
It's clear that during her primary, Clinton moved to the left. It was always an open question whether she did it just to mollify her primary electorate, or whether that would be the message to run on in November. It's not inconceivable that Hillary could yet pivot to the center, as the conventional wisdom calls for. Indeed, when it comes to Clinton doing something to win an election, nothing is inconceivable. But it's looking less likely than ever.
If Clinton runs on the left-wing message she touted at the convention, she will run as the most left-wing Democratic candidate since George McGovern or Michael Dukakis. And she's a Clinton. It was the Clintons who pioneered the centrist, careful, triangulating style of Democratic politics. That's what kept the Democratic Party competitive in national politics for so long.
Pretty clearly, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party see 2016 as a base election, one where they need to mobilize their base to win, rather than reach out to the center. But this is virtually unprecedented in modern Democratic Party politics.
There has been a lot of talk about the idea that America's changing demographics have led to the emergence of a "rainbow coalition" for Democrats — an alliance of minorities and upper-middle-class whites that could deliver a national majority for Democrats. Some say that the 2012 election, where Mitt Romney won a smashing victory with whites but lost minorities badly, proves the point. But the 2012 election also saw historic turnout for African Americans, and they elected the nation's first African American president. Will they also turn out for a rich old white lady?
It's true that if anything could get African Americans to turn out en masse, it's to stop Donald Trump, who has managed to garner an incredible 0 percent of the black vote in some battleground state polls. And it goes without saying that there's a very plausible scenario in which the Trump candidacy also causes unprecedented turnout among Latino voters.
But it's still a risky strategy. Trump has left the center wide open. And mobilizing your base depends on demonizing your opponent. Trump is a ripe target for that, but Democrats might not be aware that they have a crying-wolf problem when it comes to demonizing Republican candidates. One reason behind Trump's success is that the hysterical rhetoric about him — that he's an authoritarian, that he panders to, and embodies, racial prejudice that is corrosive to society, and so on — although justified with him, was also unjustifiably used against every other GOP candidate in recent memory. Which means that a lot of swing voters end up just rolling their eyes at those attacks. Especially when they come from one of the most untrustworthy public figures in modern American history.
Is Hillary crazy, or crazy like a fox? We'll soon find out.