As these things go, last week was shaping up to be a fairly awful one for Hillary Clinton. Tightening polls indicated that California, the most populous state in the nation, where Clinton won by 8.3 percentage points in 2008, and by the way, a diverse state—the kind of place that Bernie Sanders should not have been threatening to win—was turning into a close race. Her nine-point lead had evaporated. Both Clintons cleared their calendars and headed west to deny Sanders a crescendo performance this Tuesday that might leave his campaign and supporters on an upswing, further emboldened in the weeks before the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Sanders had even—impossibly and presumably to Clinton’s chagrin—managed to convince a handful of her super-delegates to switch their allegiance. Senior Democratic strategists had begun to fret openly to the press about her campaign’s ability to battle Trump.
“As soon as she clinches the nomination,” advised Senator Chuck Schumer, “we need a high-level person in the campaign whose sole job is to respond to Trump, almost on an hourly basis.”
You could almost hear the hand-wringing.
But then on Thursday, the dark clouds—a low pressure front of assertions, complaints, scandal and diminutions—lifted. Clinton, flanked by an almost-paranoid number of American flags (specifically 19), delivered what was billed as foreign-policy speech but was really more of an exercise in Benihana-style knife work, slicing apart Trump’s character with the same enthusiasm and expertise employed by the chain’s entertainers-cum-chefs.
The New York Times called it a “lacerating rebuke,” while the AP deemed it “a political thrashing” and the Huffington Post went with “biting mockery.” Even Trump himself seemed to be cowed, mustering a rather anemic assessment of the moment:
Bad performance by Crooked Hillary Clinton! Reading poorly from the telepromter! She doesn't even look presidential!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 2, 2016
Given all that Clinton had thrown at Trump, teleprompter skills were the best he could do? No doubt there were fist-bumps in Clintonland as she strode off the stage.
It’s been a long time since the gloom on Clinton’s campaign has lifted, in so many corners and across such varied divides. The question now is: how long will the good weather hold?
On Tuesday, California voters will play some role in determining the campaign’s immediate fortunes. A Sanders win, now as easily imaginable as a Clinton win, will continue to plump the sails of a movement that shows no sign of slowing down. But even before the polls close in California, Clinton is expected to win the primary in New Jersey, which will push her total of pledged delegates and superdelegates above 2,383, making her the party’s de-facto nominee, presuming Sanders cannot convince a large number of superdelegates to switch their votes.
The media’s rapacious fascination with Trump will also help Clinton in the short term this week: Cable news is eager to get on with a two-person race, and Clinton becoming the de-facto nominee on Tuesday is all the better reason to ramp up coverage and give the maligned networks a chance to prove their ability to really cover Trump.
The bigger obstacle to Clinton’s ability to remain in the sun is the convention in July, and how she will campaign in the run-up to it.
The former secretary of state seems to have learned something critical about messaging in the past week. Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter who worked on Clinton’s Thursday remarks, said: “The campaign sent me a draft, and when I looked at it I thought, ‘Wow, this is different. Good job, guys!’”
Favreau believes that the Clinton team has cracked some part of the code, as it concerns Trump. “I don’t think a collection of snazzy lines is the way to go after Trump—you know, stuff like, We don’t need a bully in the pulpit! You need to calmly make the case against him, rather than attacking him with one-liners.”
Indeed, the cornball attempts at campaign memes, ones like “Dangerous Donald,” were excised last week in favor of something simpler (and far more brutal): a recitation of Trump’s declared positions and how they might inform his behavior in the Oval Office.
Favreau also contends that “Clinton has a sense of humor much more like Obama’s—she’s dry and sarcastic,” and that’s what was on display last week. “I think they realized that, with Trump, you don’t need a lot of spin on the ball, and they had been putting a lot of spin on the ball.”
But as useful as set pieces like the one on Thursday can be, campaigns, especially this year, need far much more.
“It was a watershed day for her in sense that everything about it worked for her,” said the former Obama campaign mastermind, David Axelrod. “The tone, setting, the substance. Now, you can’t go and throw 12 flags up and do a speech like that everyday. The reason it worked for her, in part, was because, if the presidential campaign is a decathlon, this is her event.”
Axelrod believes that the Clinton jujitsu of last week portended something good for the coming fall debates with Trump, but that her challenge is to “keep the focus on consistently on Trump’s temperament and public character.”
Still, just waving the Benihana knives does not a meal make: In the end, you have to serve the people something.
“We’d be naïve not to think that a lot of this election is going be decided on personality,” said longtime Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. “It does her no good to be the Other Person in This Race Who is Working on Insults All Day Long. It’s not her. And she’s not as good as it as Trump is! Clinton’s strength is going be connecting with people on things that matter. She’s got to go positive.”
Clinton has thus far offered her positive vision in the form of wonky policy: as Axelrod says, “a cascade of proposals in eye-glazing detail.” Surely, heft has to be some part of the dish on offer, but not too much. “She needs less prose and more poetry,” he said. “She needs to seize on a few [policies] that both set up a contrast and are understood.”
But by far the trickiest territory to negotiate come July is that occupied by Team Sanders: what to do about his legions of enthusiastic supporters, who show no sign of dimming their ardor and have lately suggested they may even protest Clinton at the convention?
Matthew Yglesias makes the case at Vox that Clinton’s speech last week was pitched to a broad audience, 70 percent of the country, rather than a fraction of either party. But it’s possible that the unrelenting focus on Trump was a pitch to Sanders supporters as much as anyone else, the men and women immensely skeptical that Clinton should be the one to close the deal. Axelrod believes that Democrats, rather than Republicans, were the intended audience. “She’s basically raised the stakes,” he said. “And that’s what they need to do—whatever disgruntlement people may feel, they must understand the stakes.”
Whether or not the argument convinced any of them remains to be seen, but Sanders’s response to Clinton’s speech would seem to align with the assessment that Clinton was directing her words to people in her own party. In the moments after the speech, Sanders trained his fire not on Trump, but on Clinton:
It’s clear from moments like these that Sanders hasn’t come around to the cessation of ground—any ground—before July, and that this may end up being Clinton’s essential battle between now and then. Although figuring out a messaging strategy on Trump has been a slog, full of failed hashtags and head-slapping missteps, negotiating a treaty with Sanders is likely to prove far more delicate and therefore prone to missteps. Clinton must be welcoming, but not saccharine, sincere but not overtly solicitous.
“If she looks like she’s essentially submitting to more than she should,” said Axelrod. “I think that makes her look weak and political in a way that she can ill afford. She needs to approach [Sanders] with open mind and an open hand, but not bowing at the knees.”
Thus far, Clinton has not had great success in convincing Sanders’s voters of cruel realities, whether legislative or otherwise, nor has she been particularly adept at mastering the more emotional aspects of campaigning. She will also have less time to formulate her strategy of detente in the next seven weeks than she has had to test out strategies against Trump. For her campaign, the best hope for success probably lies in the fact that Clinton has finally found a voice and a posture that works—albeit against a different adversary—and the momentum from that may be enough to move Sanders himself when the clock finally runs down in Philadelphia.