On the face of it, Hillary Clinton, who will be nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in Philadelphia this week, should be winning by a landslide against the Republican Party’s Donald Trump. But don’t bet on it.
Last fall, when campaigning began for the Democratic Party’s nomination, it was widely assumed that Clinton, towering above her potential rivals, would be coronated as the candidate in no time. But an unknown figure with limited links to the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, made the going really tough for her.
At the end of the gruelling primaries, Clinton barely managed to edge out Sanders. A self-proclaimed socialist, Sanders won 1,846 delegates to Clinton’s 2,205 in the primaries and caucuses. Beyond these impressive numbers, Sanders mobilised many important sections of the electorate in favour of structural change in American politics. Many of his supporters believe the electoral system is rigged against outsiders. They want the Democratic Party’s platform to reflect their growing anxieties, especially regarding economic globalisation and the militarisation of American foreign policy.
The intensity of these sentiments poses three big challenges for Clinton in Philadelphia this week. The first is about signaling unity of the party after the deeply divisive primary process. If Cleveland saw the Republicans wash their dirty linen in public, it will not be easy for the Democrats to hide their differences in Philadelphia.
Unlike many leaders in the Republican party who refused to endorse Trump, Sanders has backed Clinton and emphasised the importance of defeating Trump. But those who rallied behind him are not entirely there yet. At the moment, no one is sure how they might behave at the convention and outside it. Hundreds of Sanders’ supporters were in the streets of Philadelphia over the weekend protesting against the rigging of the process in favour of Clinton. Sanders’ assertions to this effect, over the past few months, have been vindicated by hacked emails from the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. The leaked emails show the committee plotting to derail Sanders’ campaign and help Clinton. The confirmation of foul play has forced the DNC chairperson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to offer her resignation.
The left wing of the party, rallying behind Sanders, is also upset with the choice of Senator Tim Kaine as Clinton’s choice as the vice-presidential candidate. While Kaine has been welcomed by the establishment as a ‘‘safe’’ and ‘‘uncontroversial’’ figure, the liberals would have liked to see a more progressive candidate.
The divisions in both parties are real, and reflect the deep sense of anger and frustration at the state of affairs in the country. That brings us to the second challenge facing Clinton — overcoming the perception that she belongs to the ancien regime at a moment when the demand for change has gained so much traction.
After two terms of the Democratic Party’s control of the White House, the “anti-incumbency” factor does work against Clinton. At the same time, she is not in a position to distance herself too much from Obama, whose stock among the party faithful and minorities is very high.
Meanwhile, Trump is branding Clinton as the “candidate of the status quo”. Ideally, her expansive experience in Washington should have been a plus for Clinton in the fight against the boorish Trump, a rank outsider. Trump, however, is trying to turn her record into a political burden. He has argued that Clinton reflects all that is wrong with Washington and its misrule.
That a billionaire like Trump is accusing the leader of the left-of-centre Democratic Party of being a professional politician in cahoots with Wall Street and big corporates is the essence of the extraordinary political inversion that Trump is trying to engineer during the current elections.
Third, Trump is trying to put Clinton on the defensive on two big issues — free trade and muscular foreign policy – by discarding the Republican orthodoxy on American globalism. In detaching the Republican Party from neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy, Trump has shocked many elements of the establishment. The leading lights of the Republican foreign policy establishment, for example, have denounced Trump as unfit for the American presidency. But Trump has found some resonance among the working classes by blaming free trade for the loss of manufacturing jobs in America and 15 years of military adventurism in West Asia for imposing such high costs on the United States.
Trump’s attack on America’s foreign and economic policies in Washington is not very different from that of Sanders. Having positioned himself to the left of Clinton, Trump is unabashed in appealing to the supporters of Sanders to join the contest against the globalist establishment. Most of Sanders’ supporters are bound to vote for Clinton, given their distaste for Trump. The overall poll numbers continue to favour Clinton. But the race is tightening as Trump cuts across the traditional dividing lines between the two parties. Finding an effective response to this new dynamic will severely test Clinton’s considerable political skills this week in Philadelphia and through the campaign this summer and autumn.