Panic now grips the Clinton campaign. Polls show Bernie Sanders surging to a dramatic lead in New Hampshire and closing in Iowa. The Washington Post reports that Hillary's national numbers are dropping faster now than they did in 2008. The Clinton campaign has started throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Sanders, with the gutter award captured, thus far, by Senator Claire McCaskill who smeared him with the "hammer and sickle," transparently attributing the red-baiting to future Republican attacks of her own imagination.
But the question isn't what's wrong with Bernie -- he's soaring beyond all expectations. The question is what's wrong with Hillary?
She has universal name recognition, unparalleled experience, the support of the big money and the political gatekeepers, the Hollywood glitz, the best political operatives, the pollsters, the ad makers, the establishment policy mavens, and political press coverage. Having learned from 2008, she's got the best ground operation in the history of Iowa caucuses that still may rescue her there. But she's sinking rapidly against a 73-year-old political maverick who is still just introducing himself to the American people.
Already the inevitable Clinton circular firing squad has begun firing its salvos: We should have gone negative on Bernie earlier. We should have used Bill more... or less. We shouldn't have bet the house on the first four primaries. Woulda, shoulda, coulda.
Inevitably, any Clinton campaign carries a lot of baggage that simply has to be overcome. The assaults on her won't really be unleashed until the general election (although Donald Trump and Republican legislators have already started). What is plaguing the Clinton campaign are less the sins of the past than the strategic choices of the present -- particularly her decision to be the candidate of big money.
Hillary's Unilateral Disarmament
From its start, the Clinton campaign has boasted about its unparalleled fundraising capacity. HRC geared up a bevy of SuperPacs and C4s to take big donations and dark money. She launched a relentless operation to get wealthy donors to max out both for the primary and the general. Her ability to raise money helped scare away other potential contenders. Her continued commitment to this path is symbolized by the $33,400 a plate dinner Warren Buffet is hosting for her in Washington, D.C. on the eve of the Iowa caucuses. People who can afford $33,400 for one seat at the table aren't exactly the working people Hillary claims to champion.
Sanders, of course, made a different decision. He has condemned Super PACs, big money and secret contributions. He has funded his campaign with record numbers of small donations raised largely over the social media. He doesn't have anything like a traditional campaign fundraising operation. That independence gives both force and integrity to his core message that it is time to take back our democracy from the "billionaire class," the entrenched interests, and the Wall Street banksters.
Clinton argues that she favors fundamental campaign finance reform, but she can't "unilaterally disarm." Deep pocket Republicans are amassing huge war chests to assault her. She has to be armed with big money to defend herself.
But in doing so, Clinton "unilaterally disarmed" her own credibility. The Clinton family foundation and the family fortune have been built with large contributions and lavish "speaking fees," significantly from the biggest financial interests in the country. Wall Street made Hillary herself a millionaire, as she pocketed over $3 million in speaking fees from Wall Street finance houses in 2013. She made nearly as much ($2.8 million) speaking to health care industry interests. And now her campaign is raising big bucks from the same folks.
The result is corrosive. When Clinton insists that her Wall Street reforms are far tougher than those of Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, it rings false. She attacks Sanders for supporting Medicare for All which naturally is the bête noire of the private health insurance and drug companies.
When Sanders invoked the $600,000 Clinton received from Goldman Sachs alone in speaking fees (a bank that just agreed to pay $5 billion essentially for mortgage fraud) in the last debate, her only defense was to suggest that a similar criticism would apply to Barack Obama who also raised money from Wall Street. Democrats like President Obama, but the defense is pretty lame given that fact that he will leave office with the big banks bigger and more concentrated than they were when their excesses blew up the economy, and with no major banker going to jail for what the FBI describes as an "epidemic of fraud."
Moreover, Sanders has demonstrated that it is possible to generate enough true popular excitement to raise enough money from small donations to be financially competitive at a presidential level. He didn't "unilaterally disarm;" he armed himself in a manner consistent with his program. And every attack by the Clinton camp only rouses his committed and growing army of small donors to ante up again.
In the general election, this might not matter as much. Every Republican -- except Donald Trump, the self-funding billionaire -- is enmeshed in the same pursuit of big money. But in the primary, as Clinton protests angrily that she is a true progressive reformer, her words lack conviction not because of Sanders' mild criticisms but because she has unilaterally disarmed her own credibility.
Credibility and Electability
In his brilliant new book, America Ascendent, Stanley Greenberg, the opinion analyst who helped Bill Clinton win in 1992, maintains that credibility on political reform is a big deal, not a side note.
Greenberg has tracked the emerging majority that Obama helped forge of the young, single women, and people of color whom he projects will constitute a majority of the electorate in 2016. These voters are looking for change. They fare among the worst in the modern economy and are the most supportive of the activist government and progressive reforms championed by Bernie Sanders and, yes, by Hillary Clinton. (Note their rankings on the CAF Candidate Scorecard)
But, Greenberg argues, these voters are the most skeptical of whether government will serve them in the end. They understand that the rich and powerful have rigged the rules, that when money talks, politicians listen. Corruption isn't a bug, it's a feature of our big money politics.
Greenberg's polling for Women's Voices, Women's Vote and other groups suggest that before they give a reform agenda a hearing, these voters must see a candidate who is credibly committed to political reform -- to curbing big money in politics, to cleaning out the stables in Washington, to making government serve the many and not just the wealthy and wired few. As Greenberg concludes, "When voters hear the [political] reform narrative first, they are dramatically more open to the middle-class economic narrative that calls for government activism in response to America's problems."
This helps explain the remarkable excitement that Sanders has generated among the young. He passionately champions popular big reforms -- tuition free college, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, a bold climate change agenda, breaking up the big banks and more. And his integrity and credibility are affirmed by his commitment to funding his campaign with the support of millions of citizens, not the big money of special interests.
As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post notes, Hillary's credibility gulf also undermines her argument about "electability." Democrats have a natural majority among the electorate, but only if they turn out. Even the Clinton campaign has been worried about whether HRC can generate the excitement among the rising American electorate to get them to the polls. Now, they worry about whether Sanders will generate so much excitement that he will flood the Iowa caucuses and primaries with a wave of new voters.
Hillary Clinton is a formidable candidate who has assembled a strong campaign. She will remain formidable even if Sanders exceeds expectations by doing well in Iowa and winning in New Hampshire. The panic among her supporters is both unseemly and excessive. Claire McCaskill and the rest of the hit squad would be well advised to listen to the advice Campaign Chair John Podesta offered to David Brock, head of one of the Clinton Super PACs, and "chill out." Clinton's difficulties stem not from the attacks of Sanders -- the most courtly of opponents -- but from her own revealing choices.