Hillary's day of reckoning
Can a presidential candidate who two-thirds of Americans believe is dishonest win the White House? That's the challenge for Hillary Clinton as she faces into next week's Democratic Convention and a November showdown with Donald Trump. Niall Stanage reports from Washington
Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30
Hillary Clinton was supposed to be something more than the less-bad option. The person who is now on the cusp of becoming the first female American president has a long and a stellar CV, including stretches as a senator representing New York and as Secretary of State.
For many Irish people, a vote for Clinton would seem like a no-brainer. The political centre of gravity in Ireland is much farther to the left than in the US. There is also some residual good feeling towards her family because of President Bill Clinton's role in the Northern Ireland peace process. And then there is the obvious fact that Donald Trump's candidacy is regarded in Ireland, as in much of the wider world, with a combination of bemusement and horror.
In the US, however, it's a closer call. Clinton's lead in the polls over the New York billionaire is meaningful but not overwhelming. Real Clear Politics, a website considered authoritative on polling data, pegged Clinton's national lead at less than 3 percentage points in the middle of this week.
The fact that Clinton has such a slim advantage over a candidate as unconventional as Trump is enough to have more moderate, anti-Trump Republicans figuratively slapping their foreheads.
Clinton, they believe, is an uncommonly weak candidate who could be easily vanquished by a more orthodox opponent with broader appeal than this year's Republican nominee.
That's not just propaganda. The facts are stark. Clinton is the least popular presidential nominee in modern times - with the sole exception of the man she is running against.
An analysis published in May by FiveThirtyEight, a statistical analysis website, noted how strongly both candidates are disliked. When voters are asked whether they have a favourable or unfavourable impression of them, Clinton and Trump hit lows unequalled in at least the past 10 election cycles.
Almost 40pc of voters expressed "strongly unfavourable" impressions of Clinton this spring. When President Obama first ran for the White House in 2008, his equivalent number was more than 10 points better. At the parallel point in the 2000 election, the number for Democrat Al Gore - who ultimately lost to George W Bush - was roughly 20 points better than Clinton's is now.
The former Secretary of State's problems have deepened even in the two months since that analysis was undertaken. The Washington Post earlier this week noted that "it's hard to overstate just how bad Clinton's numbers are." Among registered voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57pc had an unfavourable view of her and 47pc a "strongly unfavourable view."
That is "the kind of unchartered territory that should give the Clinton campaign heartburn", the Post story noted.
Problems on such a scale rarely have one cause.
Clinton's weaknesses are manifold, even if they are rarely acknowledged in the positive Irish media coverage she enjoys.
One overarching issue is her sheer longevity on the political scene. The US public is dissatisfied with the nation's direction and hungry for change. A candidate like Clinton, who has been at the centre of the public stage for a quarter of a century, does not fit the bill very well.
But that is not the beginning and end of the story about why so many Americans fail to warm to her.
Some have deep-seated doubts about her honesty. Others see her as inauthentic. And Clinton still grapples with the basics of campaigning: her public speaking abilities, by the standards of presidential politics, are average at best.
Clinton herself has gone halfway to acknowledging this. At a Democratic debate back in March, she told the audience: "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama."
But remarks like that underplay the depth of the electorate's negative feelings. One of the most persistent problems she has is also the starkest: The American public thinks - by an overwhelming margin - that she is a liar.
A CBS News/New York Times poll a little more than a week ago asked voters whether they considered Clinton honest and trustworthy. Only 28pc answered in the affirmative and 67pc replied "No."
It's possible to win an election when two-thirds of the electorate think you're dishonest. But it certainly makes it a tough drag.
Clinton has sometimes ascribed low poll numbers to the attacks she has undergone from ideological opponents and hostile elements of the American media - the "vast right-wing conspiracy", as she termed it during her husband's presidency.
There is both truth and self-delusion in that belief. It's certainly the case that Clinton has been subject to vituperation from conservatives throughout her time in public life. But the same is true of her husband and, more recently, President Obama - yet they continue to be seen in a more positive light by the general population.
Clinton has had some head-scratching moments when it comes to her relationship with the truth.
One of the most memorable came on St Patrick's Day, back during the 2008 primary campaign.
Speaking at George Washington University, Clinton recalled a visit she and her daughter Chelsea had made to Bosnia in 1996.
"I remember landing under sniper fire," Clinton said. "There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base."
This compelling tale of daring was complete fiction in all its important particulars. While the trip did take place, news footage shows Clinton walking calmly from her plane.
A Washington Post fact-check noted that Clinton's account was "simply not credible" and described how "Clinton and her party were greeted on the tarmac by smiling US and Bosnian officials. An eight-year-old Muslim girl, Emina Bicakcic, read a poem in English. An Associated Press photograph of the greeting ceremony… shows a smiling Clinton bending down to receive a kiss".
Exactly what Clinton was thinking when she confected the story - and why she did not realise she would be caught out in the lie - perplexed even her own supporters.
The same tendency asserted itself during the much more recent controversy over her use of a private email and server while Secretary of State. The backstory in this instance is complicated. At its core, the dispute was about whether Clinton set up the unusual arrangement for convenience, as she claims, or for purposes of concealment, as her critics allege.
The row rumbled on for more than a year but Clinton leaned on a number of claims to push back on accusations that she had endangered national security.
Prime among these was the assertion that she had never sent or received any emails containing information that was classified at the time. This was untrue, according to the FBI. The bureau's director, James Comey, announced earlier this month that his agents had found 110 such emails.
Clinton said she had "provided all my work-related emails", as requested. Not so, said Comey, citing "several thousand" more emails.
Clinton's polling numbers on honesty, so bad for so long, dipped once again after the FBI report.
Clinton supporters emphasise that the FBI, though critical, shied away from pressing criminal charges against her. They also argue that condemnations of Clinton for everything from dishonesty to her purportedly harsh speaking style are most often made by people who are politically hostile, or sexist, or both.
But others who are sceptical of her - many of them on the left - cite not just the occasional whopper that Clinton has been caught in, but a more general sense of slipperiness. They see her as someone who bends with the prevailing political winds and engages in legalistic evasions and sleight of hand.
Those traits have shown up during both of her presidential runs.
On occasions, exactly where Clinton stands can be almost impossible to discern. Sometimes, the issue is somewhat marginal - as happened during a 2007 debate when she gave an infamously jesuitical answer to the question of whether she thought illegal immigrants should be eligible for driving licences.
This year, a similar moment occurred in a debate with her main rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. This time, the subject was whether to raise the national minimum wage to $15 per hour.
"I have supported the Fight for $15," Clinton said.
Sanders shot back: "I'm sure a lot of people are very surprised to learn that you supported raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour." He said she had supported only a $12 wage.
To most people, this would seem a clear-cut question. Either you support a $15 national minimum wage or you don't - and Clinton had just said she did.
Except she hadn't exactly said that, if you parsed her words forensically.
Sanders was right: At the time, Clinton only supported a minimum wage of $12 per hour. But she had backed $15 in certain cities where the cost of living is higher. Those cities were also where a union-led "fight for $15" had been most fiercely pursued.
Clinton could thus claim to support "the Fight for $15" in front of a Democratic debate audience while not actually committing herself to supporting a $15 national minimum wage.
Witness enough such moments and it becomes a lot easier to see why even many American liberals distrust Clinton.
The struggle with Sanders was telling in other ways, too. Most simply, the closeness of the result shone a light on Clinton's inherent weaknesses as a candidate.
Sanders, a 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist who had spent his career as a fringe figure in US politics, was not that widely known outside his small home state. His candidacy was met with a roll of the eyes by the Washington cognoscenti when it was launched in the spring of last year.
Yet from there, Sanders racked up more than 13 million votes, beat Clinton in 23 contests and elicited so many small-dollar donations that he all but wiped out Clinton's money advantage.
If a couple of early contests had gone the other way - Sanders lost out in Iowa, the first state to vote, by less than half of one percent - there was a real possibility that Clinton could have lost a Democratic nomination fight for a second time.
Sanders did not even have the strengths that Obama showed in 2008. Unlike Obama, Sanders is not especially charismatic, his oratory tends to hector rather than soar, and his election would have broken no historical barrier in the way Obama's did.
But Clinton's Achilles' heel against Sanders could yet prove to be a weakness in the general election against Trump: Whatever reformist zeal she once had, she has come to be seen by many Americans as part of the political establishment.
Read more: The giant sitting on Hillary's shoulder
Her 2002 vote to allow President George W Bush to use force in Iraq dogged her with Democrats during the 2008 campaign. But that vote was consistent with other hawkish positions. Even in recent years, she has been a proponent of more vigorous action in Libya and Syria than was Obama.
Her relations with Wall Street are sufficiently cosy for her to have been paid lavish sums for speeches to Goldman Sachs soon after she left the State Department. During a fierce battle in advance of the New York Democratic primary this spring, Sanders reminded his audiences that Clinton had received as much as $225,000 per speech, but would not release transcripts of her remarks.
"Now, if you give a speech for $225,000, it must be a pretty damn good speech; must be a brilliant and insightful speech analysing all of the world's problems; must be a speech written in Shakespearean prose. And that is why I believe Secretary Clinton should share that speech with all of us," Sanders sarcastically told one Brooklyn rally.
Clinton defenders talk of her toughness, her persistence and her experience. All those things are real attributes that she has in spades. And many people on the left of the American political spectrum will vote for her in November, even if their love for her is decidedly tepid. For them, the idea of a Trump presidency is unbearable.
But Clinton may need to ignite broader enthusiasm for her candidacy. And that could be a problem.
"It says a lot about our relationship with Hillary Clinton that she seems well on her way to becoming Madam President because she's not getting indicted," liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote earlier this month in the wake of the FBI report.
Yes, the likelihood of Clinton becoming the first female president is very strong. But someone minded to make a speculative bet might consider a flutter on her tenure being limited to one term.
Most presidents enter office with a big store of public goodwill upon which they can draw in their early days.
For Hillary Clinton, that reservoir ran dry long ago.
Niall Stanage is Associate Editor of the Washington political newspaper The Hill