In the fifteenth anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 11 that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Hillary Clinton came to Ground Zero for a commemorative ceremony. Just an hour and a half into the memorial service, she felt “overheated,” according to a statement released by her campaign, and decided to leave. As she was ready to get into a van that came to receive her, her knees seemed to buckle, and she had to be assisted by Secret Service personnel into the vehicle. Videos of her wobbly knees went viral on social media, acting as an apt metaphor of her lately stumbling campaign. As polls indicate a tightening race between her and Donald Trump for the US Presidency, her supporters are concerned and mildly alarmed that she is having such a hard time pulling away from perhaps the weakest opponent imaginable on the Republican side.
Things looked very different only a few weeks ago. All through August, Clinton seemed poised to coast to an easy victory. The Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia, held in late July, formally anointed her as the first female candidate of a major political party for the Presidency. With stirring speeches on her behalf by the President, Vice President and the First Lady, the Convention gave Clinton&’s candidacy a big boost that was reflected in a measurable bump in the polls.
Then Donald Trump began a strange process of self-destruction, first tangling with the immigrant parents of a slain Muslim soldier, and then suggesting to gun lovers that they could find unconventional ways to neutralize Hillary Clinton and thus protect the Second Amendment (“Right to Bear Arms”) to the US Constitution. The bottom appeared to be falling out from under the Trump campaign.
But things began to change in September as the battle for the Presidency was joined in earnest. All through August, Hillary had kept a low profile and was busy raising funds. This gave Trump an opportunity to dominate the news cycle, projecting a more restrained and less volatile image as he jetted to Mexico one afternoon to meet their President and then jetted back to bash (mostly Mexican) illegal immigrants the same evening.
Clinton&’s many critics on the right, meanwhile, kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of her judgment – from the Iraq war to the Libya intervention, from her use of a private e-mail server as the Secretary of State that might have been compromised to her allegedly favoring large donors to the Clinton Foundation with unspecified benefits. These questions and innuendoes began to chip away at her apparent advantage over Donald Trump.
Then Clinton inflicted some self-damage of her own. First she bashed Trump&’s supporters by stating that “half of them” could be put in a “basket of deplorables” – meaning they were racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and what not. True or not, this was a highly impolitic statement, for which she later apologized. Then she contracted pneumonia and was on antibiotics, but kept the news to herself and a handful of close aides as she went to the 9/11 memorial service. Her subsequent dehydration and fever, leading to wobbly knees, blew the top off her secret. Forced by the doctor to take bed rest for a few days, she was not on the campaign trail while the electorate wondered if she was a person who could ever be fully trusted.
The smart money is still with Hillary Clinton winning the Presidency in the election to be held on November 8. But that is not exactly a foregone conclusion. In fact, her candidacy faces stiff headwinds coming from history, mood of the electorate, gender norm in society, and her own personality traits.
Take the case of history first. The US Presidency typically changes hands, in terms of parties, every eight or 12 years. This desire for change has an element of both party and personality fatigue with the incumbent. After eight years of a quiet and cerebral Barack (“No Drama”) Obama and the Democratic Party, the time should be ripe for a showy and garrulous Republican to take control of the White House. The odds of history clearly favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. The same is true of the mood of the electorate, which is sour rather than sunny. Barack Obama&’s stewardship of the economy has been spectacular in the sense that, during his tenure, the country has largely recovered from the Great Recession of 2007-08, with steady job growth and a slowly expanding GDP. The economic recovery, however, has been uneven: well-paying middle class jobs have disappeared due to globalization (factories relocating overseas), automation (for competitiveness) and technology change (e.g., clean energy replacing coal). The resultant economic anxiety fuels a desire for change – for an outsider like Trump to take over the helm – rather than continuity with a consummate insider like Clinton.
A second layer of anxiety, this time for physical security, has now joined the economic concerns to further foul up the electorate mood. The latest threat to public security came from home-made bombs placed at various points in New York and New Jersey by a radicalized Afghan immigrant. Thankfully, many of the devices failed to explode, and those that did caused minimal damage. But the perpetrator reaffirmed the narrative of untrustworthy Muslim immigrants and played into the same nativist sentiments that we see rising in Europe (Brexit, Marine Le Pen in France) and are exploited by Donald Trump. The ruling elites are viewed as untrustworthy for both economic and physical security, and Clinton as part of that elite has a lot of distrust to overcome.
The third source of headwind that Clinton faces is society&’s gender norm. Her candidacy is indeed historic, because it will be the first time Americans have been asked to vote for a serious female Presidential contender and there would be some innate resistance. Hillary has faced and handled the backlash to feminism all her life. She wanted to keep using her maiden name after marriage, but conservative criticism forced her to use Rodham as the middle name (as in Hillary Rodham Clinton). Now she has to project both femininity and toughness, endure critiques of her looks and clothes, and ignore unsolicited advice to “smile more.” In a balancing act, she has to court ardent feminists on college campuses without alienating or ruffling feathers of housewives with gaffes like the one she made in 1992 on her husband&’s campaign trail: “I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession.”
Finally, Clinton has an odd penchant for secrecy that typically comes back to haunt her. This tendency may have doomed her attempt, early in her husband&’s Presidency, to do comprehensive health care reform. Her decision to use a private e-mail server for non-classified communication while she was the Secretary of State might have been prompted by a desire for privacy, but it ultimately blew up in her face. She was raked over the coals for deleting a large number of allegedly private e-mails before turning the server over to investigators from the State Department and the FBI to check for improper usage and possible hacking. Her hyper-secrecy about revealing an ailment like pneumonia has fed gossip about her hiding potentially more serious health problems.
Even after doing public service and being in the public eye for decades, Clinton remains a somewhat enigmatic and polarizing figure with a large deficit in public trust. This last failing might have disqualified her as a Presidential candidate in any other election year.
It is fortunate for her that she is facing a particularly weak candidate who is cavalier about the truth and has an equally large trust deficit of his own. The emergence of Donald Trump as the opponent may be the best thing going for her as Hillary Clinton tries to steady her faltering campaign, prepare for televised debates and move on to the November election.
(The writer is a physicist based in New Jersey and associated with Bell and ET.)