Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 10):
Clinton, Sanders and the sprint to the finish

WITH ABOUT THREE weeks left in the primary season, the postwar map of the Democratic campaign world is coming into its sharpest relief yet. We can see where this thing is going, short of a repeal of basic additive mathematics and majority rule. That arc of an increasingly fractious campaign is clarifying two distinct, distinctly different campaign styles -- one reflecting a shortage of energy, the other reflecting what may be the wrong kind of energy.

For Hillary Clinton, the delegate total that determines who will or won’t win the Democratic nomination inches slightly higher. With her May 17 win in the Kentucky primary, Clinton is more than 95 percent of the way to winning the prize outright, with at least 2,299 delegates of the 2,383 needed to clinch.

Bernie Sanders won the Oregon primary on May 17, pretty much expected given the state’s progressive political inclinations, but certainly due in part to Sanders’ tireless campaigning and a steadfast belief in his message. But the phrase “uphill battle” isn’t even an apt directional metaphor for his campaign anymore. Trailing Clinton by more than 750 delegates, the senator from Vermont is like a man moving around in a scene from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” the shape and direction of space changing as he moves, a horizontal surface dizzyingly transformed into a deeply vertical chasm. The floor becomes a ceiling becomes a wall.

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This, give or take, is what’s likely to keep happening from now until June 7, when the big harvest of delegates comes in from California. The 475 delegates at stake in the Golden State primary won’t likely go completely to Clinton or Sanders; whatever the breakdown is, it’ll be another split decision (this time of delegates).

With a deficit of just 84 delegates to win the nomination, Clinton is in pole position — a fact that compromises not just the drama for the Democrats from here on in (you can hear the network news show producers crying right now), but also the intensity Clinton likely brings to the rest of the primary campaign.

The Democratic electorate has been spoiled, to some extent, by the built-in lightning rod phenomenon of Barack Obama. Starting with his first campaign in 2008, Obama came to arouse an almost primal energy in a rapidly changing, younger, technologically savvy electorate. Excitement at rallies and on the campaign trail was almost electric, and thoroughly infectious. “The Big O” had more than one meaning that year.

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MAKING HISTORY was a fact of both his campaigns, but especially the 2008 model, when everything seemed possible. That’s no less true of Clinton’s campaign; breaching the historically-cultivated presidential glass ceilings of gender and race — making that kind of history twice in a decade — would certainly be a signal moment in American politics.

But up to now there’s been something flat and rote and monochromatic about the Clinton presidential campaign. In no small part because the nomination math is so decidedly in her favor, and because (quiet as kept) of the implicit entitlement that seeps from every pore of her campaign and its messaging, we’ve seen a Clinton presidential bid that appears to only exert itself when it absolutely has to. There’s little push, not much urgency or drive coming from Team Hillary right now. They’re the juggernaut, the bell cow, the shiznit ... and they know it.

That kind of self-confidence has its place. The Democrats need a campaign whose self-confidence and numerical certitude match that of the GOP frontrunner, the billionaire attention addict Donald Trump. Clinton fills that bill.

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But being the presumptive nominee opens the possibility of a certain organizational insulation. The moment the nominee is formally named, the big walling-off begins as the primary season ends and the campaign for the general begins. The relationship with the public will change; so will the relationship with the media, and the one with donors, large and small, to her campaign.

Energy could be what makes the difference in those relationships, whether they work or fall apart in the next five months. And it’s that special, singular energy -- that ineffable buzz about a historic campaign and a groundbreaking candidate -- that’s in short supply at Team Clinton right now.

It may just be primary season malaise, and something that’ll lift in mid-June. It may be a matter of energy conservation. Or maybe it’s something else. Clinton’s current campaign isn’t exactly the shock of the new; hell, we’ve known she was going to run in 2016 since her campaign ended in 2008. And new’s what the public craves now. Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. Politically, familiarity may just breed indifference. On Election Day, one’s about as bad as the other.

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IRONICALLY, and despite the volatility of the turbulent relationship between Clinton and Sanders, the Democrats have the luxury of some relatively quiet time. The next primary is in the Virgin Islands on June 4, and in the 10 days between now and then, we may see both campaigns roll out new tactical methods of dealing with Donald Trump, the man one of them will go up against in the general-election campaign.

Clinton may have done exactly that -- gotten a head start on going on offense -- over the weekend. Lisa Lerer and Catherine Lucey of Talking Points Memo reported Sunday that Team Clinton is beginning a campaign narrative whose basic thrust is “Let Trump be Trump”: While Clinton & Co. keep eyes on the prize, the thinking goes, Trump will go on painting himself into a corner by way of his own words from the campaign trail.

This may be Clinton’s plan, working a rope-a-dope move on Trump, letting The Donald rhetorically punch himself out in the early and middle rounds. Whatever it is, it’s also an implicit rejoinder to the chattering class who say Clinton’s fighting a “two-front war.” To go by the TPM story, she’s really not.

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Lerer and Lucey report: “She's just weeks away from wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination, and friends, aides and supporters describe a candidate who isn't particularly rattled by what she expects will be Trump's increasingly direct attacks on her marriage and husband's personal indiscretions.

“In fact, Clinton believes that she can turn Trump's deeply personal assaults to her benefit, they say, particularly among suburban women who could be crucial to her hopes in the fall. Her plan is never to engage in any back-and-forth over the scandals. Instead, she'll merely cast him as a bully and talk about policy.”

“Her supporters contend Trump's slams on her character will motivate Democrats, particularly female voters, so long as Clinton stays focused on rising above these matters.”

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SANDERS’ NEXT 10 days will apparently be a lot more disputatious at the intraparty level. Trailing Clinton by a ton, Sanders’ route to the nomination is taking on a more procedural tone.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Sanders’ campaign is going to the mat for a recanvass of the votes cast in last Tuesday’s Kentucky primary. “The Sanders campaign said it has asked the Kentucky secretary of state to have election officials review electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from last week's primary in each of the state's 120 counties,” The AP reported.

Purpose: To pick up one (1) delegate, ostensibly as a way to give the Sanders campaign delegate-count bragging rights in the Bluegrass State (Clinton and Sanders split 54 delegates, but Clinton topped Sanders in the actual vote tally by about 2,000 votes, about 0.5 percent, AP reported).

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“Clinton and Sanders both picked up 27 delegates in Kentucky and one remaining delegate will be allocated in the sixth congressional district, which includes Frankfort and Lexington,” The AP said. “The delegate will be awarded based on final vote tallies and Clinton currently leads Sanders by a slim margin of about 500 votes in that district.”

It’s all very down-in-the-weeds shit, grist for the mills of analysts and the punditburo. But it’s not likely to resonate much with the general public. And there’s a PR liability that’s baked into such efforts, however justified they might be. First, if there’s any suspicion of fraud on Team Clinton, the first and glaringly obvious question is why Clinton would engage in a desperation move like that while sitting on an overwhelming delegate lead even before the Kentucky primary went down.

And besides that ... it sends the wrong message about the Sanders presidential bid, communicates a smallness that suggests a campaign fixating on the rear-view mirror when it’s the road ahead that matters. Sanders’ reach for grievance is all about procedure; Clinton’s doubling down on  policy.

Guess which one people ultimately pay more attention to.

Image credits: Clinton-Sanders photo-illustration: Talking Points Memo logo: © 2016 Talking Points Memo.

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