Scandals embolden Dems to challenge Hillary

Last week:

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 25-

This week:

  • Sharks circle Hillary’s campaign
  • Fiorina is en fuego
  • Moderate Kasich’s rise arguably more important than Trump

President 2016

DemocratsNo, that isn’t Frankenstein and Dracula you saw in the news last week — it was John Kerry and Al Gore.

The ghosts of Democratic elections past are suddenly rising again. That’s how bad Hillary Clinton’s coronation is going.

The potential strengths or weaknesses of those two previous presidential losers aside, it is a very bad sign for Clinton that they are stirring again — a vote of no confidence from the rest of the Democratic elite. This development — brought on ultimately by Clinton’s own arrogant transgressions — has rank-and-file Democrats suffering newfound uncertainty. Until now, they felt understandably safe in the assumption that their primary was a done deal before it even began. Not so anymore.

Last week, Bernie Sanders showed startling signs of life, his #blacklivesmatter hecklers Bernie sanders3notwithstanding. The Vermont socialist has been attracting crowds larger than 25,000 in West Coast gatherings and has closed what was a 46-point gap against Clinton in June to just 19 points nationally. (If you study the crosstabs there, you’ll see he’s leading Clinton among Democratic men and white Democrats.) Sanders was actually leading Clinton in one New Hampshire survey (probably an outlier but still very good for him).

Joe Biden also last week reinforced his earlier hint about entering the race. He addressed the issue of his age (he’d be 74 years old by inauguration day) by promising he would serve just one term as president if elected. In short, these are not Democrats who are interested in waiting around for Hillary’s coronation.

Even more startling are the new trial balloons from both John Kerry and Al Gore. The latter says he would not run against Hillary if she stays in the race, but he made the hint for a reason — Gore is not the only one who notices the small but growing chance that he will have the opportunity to run without opposing her. The mere mention of the possibility is a sort of challenge to Clinton’s authority as the Democrats’ next leader.

This has all gone down just as we hinted it might. Clinton’s scandals have so weakened the foundation of her candidacy that other Democrats are starting to wonder whether she might be beatable in the primary. Last week’s revelation that she illegally held information classified “top secret” on her unsecured private email server for years only makes matters worse.

This is not the place to discuss the merits of the FBI investigation into her conduct and that of her staff, but rather how this affects public perception. The original decision to place herself above the rules that apply to other government employees is typically Clintonian, and it has had unusually heavy repercussions. It has resulted in a serious breach of national security protocol — for which better men (notably David Petraeus) have been prosecuted — and it now threatens even her continued presence in the race. If someone on her State Department staff is indicted for sending the classified material to her against-the-rules private email server, it will be very awkward to explain the situation to voters.

Even before this, without a single negative ad run against her, Clinton had already been polling poorly in swing states against Republicans and showing weakness against Sanders. Americans seriously doubt her honesty and character — even many Democrats who will ultimately vote for her show skepticism in opinion surveys.

Clintons have overcome scandal before, but there is an important and often overlooked distinction between Bill’s less serious trouble from the late 1990s and Hillary’s now. He had already been elected president when he had his scandal, and so Democrats had a huge stake in shoring him up by any means necessary. Hillary, on the other hand, is just a candidate who may or may not represent their party in 2016. The moment she looks like a loser, the entire Democratic electorate can just throw her over the side like she was the damaged nuclear core of a Soviet submarine. Democrats will happily tolerate scoundrels, but not losers.

And so the sharks are circling Hillary’s campaign. She might still come out of it ahead, but this is not going to be the coronation she expected. It could become a real struggle — the sort of grueling race in which the winner hobbles or crawls across the finish line, bruised and bloody.

GOP debate: With our brief vacation and the first GOP debate well in the rearview mirror, we can afford to look beyond what got all the headlines two weeks ago. Let’s not dwell on who bled or where — let’s look at two underdog candidates who have begun to distinguish themselves.

First is Carly Fiorina. The kiddie-table debate in which she took part received surprisingly good CIB052815-Fiorina-1ratings for a meeting of second-tier candidates, suggesting a huge hunger among Republican voters to learn more about the candidates. And the debate went very well from her perspective — she managed to boost her name recognition in the polls by 14 points, her likeability by 20 points, and she has received modest bumps in various polls — in the latest FOX News nationwide poll, she had moved from asterisk to five percent. Many wags have suggested that Fiorina is running for Secretary of Commerce, but she can afford to set her sights higher now.

The second man to watch, for different reasons, is John Kasich. The moderate governor wants to lay CIB042015-Kasichclaim to the moderate GOP electorate that has been turned off to Chris Christie by his bridge scandal and the perception that it makes him unelectable. One could say that he nips at Jeb Bush from Bush’s left. Kasich has been running ads in New Hampshire, and his efforts have paid off so far — he hit double digits (12 percent) in the recent Boston Herald poll there. His candidacy, previously of the asterisk variety, must be taken seriously now.

His rise is could actually end up being good for conservatives who are wary of Bush. The GOP is a conservative party, and there is only so much demand for moderate candidates. His presence in the race nudges Bush to his right, and serves to split the voters on the moderate end of the GOP spectrum. Just as the unserious candidacy of Donald Trump is currently splitting conservative support (it probably won’t last), a split on the moderate side gives conservatives more breathing room as they seek to unite around an electable candidate of their own.

Trump: Okay, so we can’t avoid this forever. Trump is showing signs that he’s losing steam, but it’s Donald Trump5really hard to say how long he will last.

The best going theory is that what will undo Trump is not his bombastic insult-hurling, but rather the thin-skinned whining we saw from him after the FOX News debate. Another theory — the evidence for which is hard to determine — is that the people who say they are supporting Trump are generally political non-participants — highly unlikely to vote or caucus. If that is the case, he will suffer a Dean-like collapse in Iowa and no one will hear from him again afterward.

Perhaps. But reality has to catch up to The Donald at some point. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Over the weekend, Trump released an immigration plan and appeared on Meet the Press, where also he discussed immigration. If you look carefully, there is little resemblance between what Trump said on television and what his position paper says.

On TV, he surprisingly asserted that he would deport all of the 10-plus million illegal immigrants in the United States — something that is physically and fiscally impossible. In his position paper, however, he makes no such promise, limiting his demands to deporting criminal aliens (something with which most reasonable people would agree). This is what a cynical, calculated effort to rile up the base with empty promises looks like.

It helps to remember that Trump once criticized Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, saying that the former Massachusetts governor’s mistake was to be too hard-line on immigration with his talk of “self-deportations.”

Has Trump seen the light, or has he figured out that he might be able to win an election if he goes around saying things that he thinks gullible voters want to hear? Republican voters will figure out the right answer to this sooner or later.