Hillary Clinton Would Be Smart to Focus on Stirring Up Fears of a GOP Victory

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Hillary Clinton Holds Iowa Caucus Night Gathering In Des Moines
You think I'm bad? How about Cruz?Photo: Win McNamee/2016 Getty Images

After an Iowa caucus in which most observers (as is typical in a caucus state, and especially in Iowa) focused on mechanics, the “ground game,” turnout strategies, and “enthusiasm,” it’s natural to see political observers pull the hat pin out of their frontal lobes and think a little more about ideas and message — the content of all that politicking — for a bit. And that’s particularly true in the discussion of what Hillary Clinton chooses to talk about now and, perhaps more to the point, when she’s past a likely defeat in New Hampshire next week. 

Daily Beast columnist Mike Tomasky thinks Clinton’s comparative campaign against Bernie Sanders just strikes the wrong tone for a nomination contest: 

I thought her closing argument in Iowa wasn’t very compelling. These people poll the crap out of these things, so I suppose they were doing what they were doing for a reason, but “the other guy is selling you pie in the sky” isn’t exactly inspirational. She’s going to need to switch gears. General election voters may want to hear about experience and pragmatism. Primary voters want some pie in the sky. Especially at the very beginning of the process.

Last summer and fall, Clinton came out with a pretty solid stream of very progressive proposals. Nobody paid any attention because it was Benghazi-email time. And now she’s sort of stopped. And Bernie’s out there saying “free health care!” She needs to say something that captures the liberal imagination.

Clinton is being challenged exactly on her Achilles Heel. Her weakest point as a pol has always been her caution. So what does God send her? A guy who’s the most incautious candidate in recent Democratic primary history. “I’m the realist” isn’t going to win her this. She has to peddle a little pie of her own.

Tomasky’s criticism is a more explicit version of the long-standing complaint that Clinton simply is not inspiring to “the base” — except perhaps for older women — and is bound to underperform when matched against a candidate who tells liberal activists exactly what they want to hear 24/7. 

But what I heard HRC articulating in Iowa was something a bit different from “experience and pragmatism.” I heard a clear warning that a Republican victory in November would be a national calamity of great magnitude, and that she’s a lot better equipped to head it off than someone who’s engaged in a Long March for democratic socialism.

This is a bit more than an electability argument, though it is that (Clinton people generally assume Sanders’s solid performance in general-election trial heats will erode once people get to know him better). It’s a matter of convincing Democrats they’d best be focused on the wolf at the door rather than intra-party grievances. 

Every time Bernie Sanders speaks of the rottenness of both political parties (or more particularly of the favors Hillary Clinton allegedly owes Wall Street) and treats the last two Democratic administrations as disappointments if not betrayals, he conveys a strong whiff of the old Naderite contention that since there’s no significant difference between the two major parties, standing on principle and educating the public (which is to a considerable extent what Sanders’s “political revolution” with its constitutional amendments and its mobilization of hidden majorities will require) is more important than winning elections and — after doing so — scratching out modest accomplishments against a fanatical and entrenched opposition. 

If you don’t think a Republican victory is necessarily that much worse than another corporate-whore centrist Democrat in the White House, and/or that a landslide victory for an uncompromising progressive agenda down the road is the ultimate goal, this point of comparison between HRC and Sanders cuts in Bernie’s favor. But it’s reasonably clear a majority of Democrats do fear a GOP victory — as they should in this particular election given the dominant position Republicans will assume if they win the presidency. And so it makes perfect sense for Clinton to appeal to that sentiment as often as is possible, and make the nomination fight something other than an Elizabeth Warren think-alike contest.

This will be called “fearmongering” by Republicans and pundits alike, and perhaps it’s not an inspiring message for the primary season. But it is galvanizing, and will become more so as the Republican contestants endlessly promise to rip up every single accomplishment of the Obama — and Clinton, and perhaps even Johnson and Roosevelt — administrations. It’s certainly as emotionally effective as a new financing plan for early childhood education.