WASHINGTON — It will not be the first time that a Clinton relies on the tough-minded voters of New York to salvage a front-running presidential candidacy.
March 24, 1992, an insurgent candidate named Jerry Brown (yes, California’s current governor) upended Bill Clinton, the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting, in the Connecticut primary. To re-establish his primacy, Clinton went to work in New York.
A few days after his Connecticut defeat, Clinton spoke to reporters about “all this crap I’ve put up with” and how he had to deal with “attacks, attacks, attacks on me.”
Of Brown, Clinton said: “I think he gives them easier answers to problems than I do. And a lot of people who are frustrated and angry want simple solutions.”
Bill Clinton routed Brown in New York’s primary and went on to win it all. Hillary Clinton is hoping for a revival of the same show. But with Donald Trump facing long-term free fall after his defeat by Ted Cruz in Wisconsin on Tuesday, she needs not only to win in New York, but also to use the coming weeks to begin dealing with political weaknesses that have been highlighted by Bernie Sanders’ continued electoral strength.
Sanders’ own victory in Wisconsin was widely anticipated, but his 13-point margin was not. Yes, as Clinton’s campaign insisted, a state with a storied progressive tradition, an overwhelmingly white electorate and rules that allow independents to vote in party primaries was naturally hospitable to Sanders. But the results underscored issues that have plagued Clinton from the beginning.
Even among Democratic primary voters, only 58 percent saw Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” (89 percent thought this of Sanders) and only 14 percent said they would be “excited” by a Clinton presidency, compared with 33 percent who felt this about a Sanders administration. Once again, voters under 30 years old backed Sanders by better than 4-to-1.
Clinton can argue that she (like her husband) has faced sustained, long-term attacks from Republicans that have spilled over into image problems among independents and even some Democrats. That’s true, but it doesn’t make her troubles go away.
Above all, Clinton and her lieutenants need to ask why Sanders has done so well. It’s not simply that Sanders has become Mr. Authenticity, the proudly disheveled guy with the Brooklyn accent. He has also turned his campaign into a cause that goes well beyond himself. He has made big offers to voters — single-payer health care, free college tuition, breaking up the big banks, higher Social Security benefits.
And Sanders’ trademark talk about the corruption wrought by big money in politics speaks to the electorate’s sense across party lines that something is badly defective in our political system. When he’s not busy self-destructing, Trump appeals to this sentiment, too.
On the particulars of the Sanders program, Clinton has legitimate grounds for challenging him. Even if you are for single-payer health care, it would never arrive all at once; we are more likely to get there through the incremental changes Clinton proposes in Obamacare.
In New York, Sanders will have to answer for his past votes on the gun lobby’s side. And he has real difficulties in explaining how his proposals to break up the big banks and providing universal college access would work.
But Sanders is singularly skilled at transforming Clinton’s practical challenges to his proposals as a wholesale rejection of the idea of being visionary. In doing so, he casts Clinton as a practitioner of the old status-quo politics.
The fact that it’s so easy to put her campaign in the context of her husband’s long-ago effort is a reminder that she’s been around a long time. It’s why a 74-year-old with a quarter-century of Washington experience is unexpectedly embraced as the next new and exciting thing.
There have been moments — her victory speech after the South Carolina primary, her recent thoughtful address about the importance of the battle for the Supreme Court — when Clinton has been able to define the stakes of the election in larger terms. She emphasized “We” over “I.”
But she needs to compete far more aggressively with Sanders, both rhetorically and substantively, as a purveyor of big ideas of her own (she is not short on policy proposals) and as the answer to the small-minded politics of this moment.
Sanders could help Clinton find a path to victory, or he could expose her weaknesses again and again, one primary and caucus at a time. Which it will be is largely in her hands.
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.