POLITICS
01/15/2016 07:00 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2016

Hillary Clinton Is Botching Her Best Chance To Win

Not again.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
It appears Hillary Clinton didn't learn from 2008.

Conventional wisdom, 2007: Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination in a cakewalk. Conventional wisdom, 2015: Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination in a cakewalk.

Everybody knows what happened to the conventional wisdom once 2007 turned to 2008. Certainly Clinton does. This time around, even as she amassed advantages that may still prove insurmountable, her campaign put forth a strong message: "We get it. We’ve changed."

But after a promising start, Clinton's campaign has taken an abrupt, confused, strategic turn. And a familiar crassness has returned to a campaign that now appears to be bent on ensuring a repeat of 2008 in 2016.

On this week’s edition of “So, That Happened,” we grapple with how this came to be. The discussion begins at the 19:45 mark.

 Recent polling suggests her rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is not only ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire, but is neck-and-neck, perhaps even ahead, in Iowa. That these early states are shaping up as competitive shouldn’t be a shock to anyone. Voters break late -- many aren't paying close attention until a few weeks before their state's contest.

And yet, Clinton has responded to the adversity by doing, frankly, what Clintons always tend to do -- going on the attack. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as those attacks make sense in the context of a Democratic primary. What Clinton has come up with, however, is strategic madness.

Perhaps the most astounding mistake Clinton has made, in recent days, is the way she’s gone about competing with Sanders on the issue of health care. Sanders favors a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system. Clinton would prefer to make incremental expansions to Obamacare.

But instead of convincing voters that she’d be the more politically effective candidate in this situation, Clinton’s gone all the way 'round the bend and has decided to ramp up unnecessary fearmongering, dispatching her daughter to New Hampshire to darkly warn that Sanders is gonna take everyone’s health care away:

"Sen. Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance," she said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. "I worry if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we'll go back to an era -- before we had the Affordable Care Act -- that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance."

Hillary Clinton herself doubled down on her daughter's comments on ABC News Thursday morning, and campaign aides have done the same. Of course, this is not true. Under a single-payer system, everybody gets health care. That's the entire point, as Hillary Clinton well knows. Chelsea Clinton knows it too. As Alex Pareene points out: "Chelsea Clinton has a masters degree in public health from Columbia. She knows exactly how what she’s saying obfuscates the issue."

This is well beyond the level of vitriol that is needed in the primary. More importantly, it's stupid. The Democratic Party has been advocating for a single-payer health care system since the Truman era. Hillary Clinton herself said in 1994 that a single-payer system was all-but politically inevitable, and advocated making Medicare available to all Americans in 2008. Politicians don't win races by trying to pull the wool over their potential supporters' eyes about core policy beliefs they have held for decades.

But Clinton's cynical, dishonest assault on single-payer is consistent with the weird, sinister turn her campaign made at the outset of 2016. Earlier this month, Clinton attempted to smear Sanders as being soft on Wall Street, suggesting that he doesn’t have a plan to take on "shadow banking." This is daffy any way you look at it. As we’ve noted before, Sanders favors aggressively breaking up the large financial institutions that engage in shadow banking. He would buttress those efforts by reinstating Glass-Steagall and hit those shadow banks that remain unaffected with a tax on their transactions.

Since the crisis, financial reform advocates have worked to make "break up the banks" the core Democratic Party message on Wall Street. Pretending that the guy who is tough on "too big to fail" is weak on Wall Street doesn't really register with anyone outside the class of former and potential Clinton advisers.

This is not a battle of ideas; it’s an investment in cynicism. And it's hard to avoid a few ugly conclusions. Clinton has not learned from the mistakes of 2008. She does not understand the Democratic Party's base. She does not respect the activists and intellectuals who have fought to establish the party's economic policy agenda over the past 50 years. And she thinks voters in early primary states are dumb enough to fall for obvious dishonesty, just because they already like her.

The truth is that Clinton has a solid set of prescriptives on both health care and shadow banking. But here's a hard truth: No Democratic president is going to be able to enact any version of his or her policy agenda with a Republican Congress. Either Sanders or Clinton will be playing defense on Obama's legacy for at least one term in office. There is almost no chance of actual liberal legislating before 2020.

The Democratic primary is two things. One, an authenticity contest, in which Clinton and Sanders try to show die-hard Democrats that they are really, really like them -- even though both are career politicians. Two, a statement of the party's purpose. Here is the dream, even if it can't be enacted anytime soon.

Clinton's recent domestic policy offensive fails on both fronts. Nobody really believes that a woman who served on the board of Walmart when her husband was governor of Arkansas and who made millions of dollars giving speeches to big banks and private equity firms is a populist Democrat. And nobody really believes that a woman who previously advocated a Medicare-for-all plan thinks single-payer will destroy Medicare. Party activists also don't believe that her incrementalism is more legislatively plausible, because no actual Democratic efforts are going to be possible for years to come.

Democrats like Clinton because she has been fighting outrageous Republican attacks for more than 20 years. She's still got it (see: Benghazi hearings), and it's Democratic primary gold (see: post-Benghazi-hearing polls). That's Clinton's best argument for the nomination. Smearing policy proposals that Democrats have spent years fighting for? Not so much.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated incorrectly that Clinton worked to establish a single-payer system in 1993. Her plan was an alternative to a single-payer system, which she viewed as politically inevitable without private-sector reforms.

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