Remember the fizz around Gordon Brown’s election campaign in 2010? The excitement he brought to the trail? The eerily intimate connection with the electorate? No, nor can I. But conjure up what you can and mix it with the thrill of a hot afternoon locked in a community centre discussing renovations to the ping-pong room and you’ll have a sense of the vibe around Hillary Clinton’s latest campaign for president.
The American media is bored of her and the polls show her support slipping, even against a Republican field nuked by the presence of Donald Trump. It’s summer, with 16 months to go until the election. But the fact that Hillary can’t grab a lead and hold on to it, with all of her institutional and financial advantages, is reminding Democrats what an awful candidate she is. So stiff, she makes Ed Miliband look animated. So suspicious, her every argument devolves into recrimination and acid-throwing. And she’s as cheesy as an end-of-the-pier hack seeing out her last pantomime season.
Her advisers have clearly told her that she needs to emphasise that she’s a grandmother. So she squeezes mentions of it into the tightest possible gap. Last month, she was asked about the critics of climate change: ‘They will answer any question about climate change by saying: “I’m not a scientist.” Well, I’m not a scientist either. I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain and I know we’re facing a huge problem.’ Sure you are, Hillary. Just you and Bill, a couple of regular grandparents, cranking up the air conditioner when you notice that summers feel warmer than they used to be.
There’s an email scandal no one entirely understands and all sorts of dodgy-seeming entanglements between donations to the Clinton Family Foundation, paid speeches by the Clintons and the suspicion of favour trading. You’d need an advanced degree in Kremlinology to figure out the truth. But from a campaign perspective, too many Americans approach the Clintons from a position of mistrust. The smearing, founded or not, has worked. Presidential elections come down to an arm-wrestle for a few votes, and that mistrust could swing it.
It’s become so bad that a ‘draft Biden’ movement has begun to swell in Democratic circles. Until recently, the shtick on Joe Biden was that he was too old and garrulous to move up a spot to the presidency. His pub-landlord warmth has been a useful counterpoint to the professorial Obama. But you wouldn’t want him running anything. He’d sit in the Oval Office jabbing at the controls like Grandpa with the remote control.
But then a couple of things happened. The first was the recent run of administration hits: the Supreme Court giving the nod to Obamacare and then gay marriage; the deal with Iran. The second was the death of Biden’s son, Beau, from brain cancer at the age of 46. It was agonising in itself, but also a reminder that, however easy it has been to laugh at Biden, he is a survivor. In 1972, just after he won his first Senate race, he lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident, when they were on their way to buy a Christmas tree. Beau Biden’s funeral and the Vice President’s noble suffering revealed how well-liked he is. All that bonhomie over so many years has created a deep well of affection. It’s the opposite to how people feel about the vindictive Clintons.
Suddenly, Biden looks like the only real Clinton-stopper in the Democratic party. It’s getting too late for an insurgent candidate, like Obama in 2008. He had announced his run by May 2007, which gave him time to gather speed. Only Biden can flip the switch this late and give Hillary a real contest. And that is what is giving Democrats conniptions this summer. Is Hillary really such a bad candidate? And are our feelings for Joe Biden being clouded by sentiment?
To the first question, the grim possibility is yes. She really is that bad. When you pull back and look at the broad political climate, a Democrat ought to succeed Barack Obama. Favourable demographics, a rebounding economy, and an increasingly popular president are teeing it up. Then there’s the chaos on the Republican side.
But Hillary is so cautious and compromised that it is hard to know what she stands for. She has taken a shot at hedge-fund managers and corporate executives: ‘Something is wrong when CEOs earn more than 300 times than what the typical American worker earns and when hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than truck drivers or nurses.’
Rather than trying to earn kudos with union audiences, she might want to take up these issues with her daughter, who used to work at a hedge fund, her son-in-law, who runs his own hedge fund, or the billionaire chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, whose firm paid her $400,000 for two speeches in the autumn of 2013. Her list of donors is stacked with hedge-fund managers: George Soros gave her campaign $1 million. You can hardly blame him. He earns $1 million in three quarters of an hour just staring at his money. It’s a cheap price for the favour of someone with a close to 50/50 shot at being the next president. But what’s with Hillary’s hedge-fund bashing? Why even open up that flank when you know you’re so vulnerable?
She says she wants to drive ‘unaccountable money’ out of politics, and yet when questions are asked about the money in her family foundation, suddenly the accountability is oddly sparse.
The problem isn’t even hypocrisy. The Clintons have long, complex careers behind them. Contradictions will always mount up. You need money to be in politics. That’s fine. What jars is the tin ear. When she talks about wanting to build the economy of tomorrow, you know that everyone she’s closest to is happy with the economy of today.
However hard she might try to dupe voters that she’s just another Midwestern grandma at heart, she comes off as the candidate of the elite, a Hamptons-hopping, big money shill. Even Jeb Bush, the American David Cameron, starts to look a little blue-collar in her shadow. What should have been a Democratic rout could end up being a narrow Republican smackdown.
James Forsyth is away.