Do you think her attempts to smear Sanders will help her chances? Also, why isn’t she in jail yet?
There’s an unmistakable Groundhog Day quality to this spring campaign swing by Hillary Clinton: the chain-chugged Diet Dr Peppers, the pained rasp and crisp pantsuits — and the once-commanding lead undercut by an underdog near enough to nip at her sensible heels.
Seventeen years ago, the underdog was Rick Lazio, a forgettable Long Island Republican with a paperboy’s face and a war chest brimming with anti-Hillary millions who gave Clinton a brief scare in a triumphant Senate race that inaugurated her electoral career. This year, the foil is independent democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, a stubborn Brooklynite with a nearly non-existent path to the nomination and a nearly unquenchable thirst for humiliating the Democratic front-runner in her home state’s April 19 primary.
Clinton didn’t much care for Lazio and she’s clearly arrived at the enough-already stage with Bernie.
Sanders was very much on Clinton’s mind — more than Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, the whole lot of them — when I sat with her for a far-ranging and unvarnished discussion for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast last Friday inside an empty warehouse at an upstate New York farmer’s market.
It was the first time in about a decade I had been granted a one-on-one interview with a woman I’d covered more or less constantly since she was elected to the Senate; as a reporter for Long Island’s Newsday, I had a local scribe’s regular, if intermittent access to Clinton and found her to be funny, friendly and occasionally candid, if fundamentally guarded. She became far, far less accessible when she embarked on her presidential campaign in early ’07 — and the spigot shut off completely in mid-2008 when I jumped to POLITICO to join a national press pack Clinton avoids out of personal preference (and, as she’d explain to me, as a strategic choice).
This time around, Clinton has managed her press interactions with extreme care, often rebuffing her staff’s suggestions that she schmooze reporters in off-the-record sessions like she did during her Senate and Foggy Bottom days. Yet within two minutes of sitting in front of the microphone, Clinton’s icy reserve began to melt, especially when I brought up the issue of Sanders’ fealty (or lack thereof) to the Democratic Party establishment Clinton proudly champions against the anti-establishment tide.
Sanders had just told an interviewer that he was iffy about raising money for down-ballot Democrats, so I asked Clinton the obvious question: Did she think Sanders is a real Democrat?
“Well, I can’t answer that,” she said with a smile. Then she proceeded to answer the question. “He’s a relatively new Democrat, and, in fact, I’m not even sure he is one. He’s running as one. So I don’t know quite how to characterize him.”
Clinton’s stock line as she’s watched Trump & Co. savage each other for months has been some version of don’t-speak-too-ill-of-any-Democrat. But things have changed over the last couple of weeks, with Sanders’ team ratcheting up its attacks and speaking openly about a contested convention, GOP style.
She was ticked off — already factoring in an inevitable loss in Wisconsin Tuesday — and was in a rare mood of public introspection, so a sit-down that was supposed to last a half-hour but ran nearly 20 minutes over time so she could more fully explain herself to a public that often views her with suspicion.
Clinton offered the dimmest possible assessment of Trump, comparing him to European neo-fascists and to the “bully” she had expected to face in 2000, Rudy Giuliani. (Realizing that Cruz had his own shot at toppling Trump, she blasted the Texas tea party senator as equally “mean-spirited.”) The Clintons are of two minds about Trump, people close to her told me. They believe he can’t actually win a general election — but fear his recklessness and his association with longtime adviser Roger Stone, who is on a one-man mission to dredge up anything scurrilous or unflattering about the Clintons, especially Bill.
Still, it is Sanders who poses the most immediate threat. He was was running hard — and hitting her hard — in New York, and she was clearly frustrated with his easy appeal to voters under 35. She even suggested for the first time (in public, anyway) that the septuagenarian from Vermont was feeding a simplistic, cynical line of argument to turn young voters against her.
“There is a persistent, organized effort to misrepresent my record, and I don’t appreciate that, and I feel sorry for a lot of the young people who are fed this list of misrepresentations,” Clinton said, a few minutes after talking herself hoarse at a rally here. “I know that Senator Sanders spends a lot of time attacking my husband, attacking President Obama. I rarely hear him say anything negative about George W. Bush, who I think wrecked our economy.”
As with all of Clinton’s fights, this one has echoes of an earlier battle – not from the still fresh memories of the 2008 campaign, but from the formative experience of her 2000 Senate run, a race so distant that 2016’s first-time voters were in pull-ups when it happened. That first campaign began with the retirement of the tweedy public intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who was lukewarm on the Clintons) in mid-1999, debuted with her first-ever listening tour, swerved past an imploding Giuliani and ended up with a 15-point triumph over a lackluster Lazio.
Clinton sees the ’99-00 race as a defining, fortifying moment, in many ways more important than her 2008 Glass Ceiling campaign. The year 2000 was her political Year Zero, when she capitalized on her high approval ratings in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and forged a career that has put her on the precipice of becoming the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination. It also represented the first step in her ongoing political education, a struggle to overcome a natural reticence (sometimes lapsing into paranoia) she now admits has been an impediment all along.
As 2016 heated up, Clinton’s staff had urged her to admit something that was readily apparent to reporters who covered her: For all her resilience and brains, she’s been an inconsistent and sometimes unlikeable campaigner incapable of inspiring a crowd the way Sanders, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton can. Finally, this spring she began talking about it – and told me that learning to campaign was “a skill” to be acquired, not a gift to be effortlessly deployed, similar to the challenge she faced when learning to litigate in court as a young lawyer in the mid-1970s.
“I hope I’m a better candidate. I feel like I am. I mean … I’m not a natural politician,” she said. “I’m not somebody who, like my husband or Barack Obama, [where it’s] just — it’s music, right? I am someone who loves doing the job that I have. I would love having the job of president because I know how to do it. I know what the country needs. But the campaigning part is hard for me … some of this may be personal to me [and] from all the literature I’ve read, [it] may be gender-linked … I’m very comfortable saying, you know, “he,” “she,” “we.” But when I had to stand up in front of people and basically say, ‘I’m asking for your vote,’ I had to really work at that. It absolutely took years … And, even today, I have to remind myself, you know, I’m asking people to vote for me.”