Most political candidates get better with time. They may run and lose, but they absorb the lessons from defeat and apply them successfully to subsequent races for public office. This is true of Democrats like Barack Obama, beaten in his first run for Congress in 2000, as much as it is for Republicans like Ronald Reagan, who became president on his third attempt.
This is not true of Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s skills as a candidate have deteriorated, measured not just by a lengthening string of losses but by miscues and gaffes. What makes it all the more remarkable is that Clinton’s primary opponent is fighting with one hand tied behind his back, refusing to make an issue of major vulnerabilities like her mishandling of classified information as secretary of state.
Even so, the dashboard warning lights have blinked on. After getting beaten in Wisconsin by Senator Bernie Sanders on Tuesday, Clinton has now lost seven of the last eight Democratic contests. For the month of March, she raised less than Sanders, taking in $29.5 million compared to $44 million for Sanders. It was the third month in a row Clinton’s fundraising lagged behind Sanders.
Just as a magician’s sleight-of-hand depends on misdirection, Clinton has benefited from the spectacle created by Donald Trump’s candidacy to escape hard scrutiny. But in any other season, the number of errors committed by Clinton is enough to get her demoted to triple-A.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, Clinton’s reference to a developing child in the womb as an “unborn person” inflamed supporters on the left who prefer medically neutral terms like “embryo” or “fetus.” Abortion activists worry that if a fetus is thought to possess personhood, then it arguably has a right to life. Clinton’s blunder was comparable to Trump’s statement, later retracted, that women should face “some form of punishment” if abortion becomes illegal. The difference is we expect Trump to make rookie mistakes.
Hostile questioners routinely greet politicians at rope lines. Experienced candidates know to either ignore the questions they don’t like or answer without losing their cool. Last week, confronted by a climate activist over contributions from oil and gas interests, Clinton angrily switched the subject to her opponent: “I do not have, I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies. I’m so sick. I’m so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I’m sick of it.”
Clinton’s answer recalls Bob Dole’s ornery response in 1988 after he lost to Vice President Bush in New Hampshire’s primary. Asked by interviewer Tom Brokaw if he had anything to say to Bush, Dole snapped: “Yeah, tell him to stop lying about my record.” Dole went on to lose that campaign and his humorless comment lives on in the annals of campaign blunders.
The continuing refusal to release the transcripts of Clinton’s closed-door speeches to big banks on Wall Street is another unforced error. The New York Times called Clinton’s “everybody does it” defense a child’s excuse. More perplexing is why Clinton embarked on the highly paid speaking tour in the first place, knowing how it would look to liberal voters suspicious of the financial industry.
After creating a political headache, Clinton refuses to take the only medicine that can make it go away — full disclosure. Until she does, Clinton will keep losing among voters who rate honesty and trustworthiness as the most important candidate characteristics.
Clinton’s five-state sweep in the March 15 primaries seems like a lifetime ago. As Clinton’s supporters constantly remind everyone, “the math” is in her favor and she remains the front-runner for the nomination. But her inability to unite the party and her missteps suggests more trouble ahead.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.