You can almost feel the frisson of unease run down the Democratic Party’s spine.
You can certainly hear it in the question asked again and again as Donald Trump, a political newcomer, has trounced a more experienced field, while Hillary Clinton, a long-timer, has struggled to deal Bernie Sanders a campaign-ending defeat.
Could Trump beat her? Or, to put it another way, could what happened in the Republican primaries happen in the general election?
Some, remembering that Ronald Reagan was once considered a right-wing lightweight, only to become a formidable candidate and well-liked president, wonder if Trump is being similarly underestimated.
So could Trump actually become president?
Anything’s possible, of course. And, given the pattern of national elections, my guess is that you’ll see a period when he’s tied or even leading in the polls.
But in the end, my expectation is that he’ll fall seriously short.
Here’s why: Clinton’s primary liabilities will emerge as (increasingly appreciated) general election strengths, while Trump’s primary season strengths will set like cement as general-election liabilities.
Let’s start with the Donald because, let’s face it, he’s more interesting. In a many-splendored — well, multicandidate — GOP field, he galvanized a daunting bloc of voters by: (1) being bombastic, (2) trafficking in nativism, racism, and xenophobia, (3) going populist on trade, (4) carrying on like an insinuating frat boy, and (5) promising policy outcomes that are nigh unto impossible.
No one on the GOP side wanted to take him on in a major way, because doing so would have meant attacking Trump from the left in front of a primary electorate that skewed strongly right.
But as we move to the general, all that changes. Trump now must sell himself to a larger, center-left electorate.
Now consider Clinton. In the primary, she had little pizzazz, in part because she was cautious, disciplined, and wonkish, and constrained by complexity.
While Sanders talked about a revolution, she stayed focused on the affordable and achievable. That meant a smaller-bore series of plans rather than a broad call for sweeping change. Health policy illustrates that point: Sanders called for replacing the Affordable Care Act — a work-in-progress culmination of a long Democratic struggle — with the lefty catnip of single payer. Clinton focused on ways to make the ACA work better.
But after an impressive effort, Sanders is now on an also-ran trajectory. That leaves Clinton to face Trump.
And look at that matchup:
She’s conversant and comfortable with foreign-policy complexities. He’s a man who, in one debate, seemed clueless about the concept of the triad, our land, air, and submarine-based nuclear-weapons capability.
Unschooled in international affairs, he treats crucial doctrines and pivotal alliances as little more than ledger-sheet calculations. His is a Dollar Store foreign policy.
His domestic plans, meanwhile, are preposterous. His fiscal and budgetary plans can’t be made to add up. His health-care “plan” is, to put it politely, at cross-purposes with itself.
Now, in a Republican race chockablock with Obama-care-loathing supply-siders, none of that got pointed out in a concerted way. But there’s no one better to prosecute that political case than Clinton, who has a deep knowledge of both foreign and domestic policy.
Simply put, she will tie him in knots in the debates.
And then there’s the matter of character. Voters clearly aren’t crazy about Clinton. But her flaws pale in comparison to his.
She’s a trimmer? He’s a misinformation machine.
She’s entitled? He’s a raging narcissist.
She overstates her accomplishments? He’s a braggart the likes of which we’ve never seen in public life.
She’s too calculating? He’s a loose cannon on a pitching deck.
She plays the woman card? He’s a sexist.
She’s unlikable? He’s . . . well, he’s Donald Trump.
So, no, I don’t think he can beat her.
In fact, I think November 8 will be an early night, leaving Democrats plenty of time to celebrate, and Republicans ample hours to drown their sorrows.