It's time for Hillary Clinton to stop worrying about Bernie Sanders and start worrying about Donald Trump.
Clinton has, for all intents and purposes, locked the nomination up. At the same time, Sanders doesn't want to drop out of the race until everyone has voted. And he has every right to go through with that plan.
But what Clinton needs to do now isn't beat Sanders, it's start preparing Sanders supporters to back her in November. In her victory speech delivered in Philadelphia Tuesday night, Clinton clearly intended to start looking to the general election but erred significantly by spending too much time still dwelling on Sanders.
Clinton touted her "bold progressive goals backed up by real plans," taking an implicit shot at Sanders before concluding that "we have to be both dreamers and doers." Then she stopped attacking Sanders and started reaching out to his supporters with explicit calls for unity.
But to really unify the party what she needs to do is turn back to her strategy from November and December — don't worry about Sanders and just talk about the showdown with the GOP. Except what looked impossible late last year now looks very probable: The GOP will be led by Trump.
To get Bernie supporters, ignore Bernie
Sanders has been telling the media lately that while he will support Clinton if she is the nominee, that doesn't automatically mean his supporters will. She'll have to earn their support.
That's true. But it's a mistake for Clinton to spend too much time explicitly begging for it as she did in the section of her speech where she argued that "there's much more that unites us than divides us." She's right. To make it work, though, she needs to show them, not tell them.
Sooner or later, Sanders will wind his campaign down and the things she says will no longer be processed through a filter of Sanders-land arguments about the inadequacy of her commitments.
Clinton needs to simply talk about the agenda that she has already outlined, an agenda that on a high level consists of the exact same things — a higher minimum wage, tougher bank regulations, higher taxes on the rich, more spending on health care and education, etc. — that have people excited about Sanders.
It's true that in contrast to Bernie Sanders, Clinton supports more restrained versions of these ideas or has a less consistently left-wing record of fighting for them. But in contrast to a Republican it's very clear that a fight for Clinton's agenda is also a fight for Sanders's agenda. What Clinton needs to do is start talking about her agenda in contrast to Trump and the GOP. It won't resonate with Bernie's people until he's out of the race, but the sooner she starts on it the better.
Defend the Obama record from his critics
The pivot Clinton hasn't yet made is the one that in some ways seems most natural — a thorough defense of Barack Obama's record as president.
In the campaign against Sanders, Clinton has hugged Obama as a shield against criticism but also tended to accept the insurgent's basic narrative of a country beset by troubles. Trump, of course, paints an even darker portrait of an America that "doesn't win any more," embarrassed by rivals like China and Japan.
Clinton, as a quasi-incumbent, is eventually going to have to defend some important aspects of the status quo.
- The American economy has certainly had its struggles, the current unemployment rate is on the low side and falling.
- The US recovery from the Great Recession has been more robust than Europe's or Japan's or the United Kingdom's. China's economy is collapsing.
- The uninsurance rate is at a record low.
- Gas is cheap.
- The financial sector is shrinking.
Clinton will, of course, want to continue to talk about the problems of struggling people and her plans to help them. But to beat Trump and to bring the party together, Clinton is also going to have to talk with pride about her party's record in office. Last time Republicans governed the country, they wrecked the economy. Under Obama, it's been coming back.
Most of all: Attack Trump
But the biggest thing missing from Clinton's partial pivot to the general election was the opponent — Trump.
She mentioned him, of course, with some allusions about how we need to be "building bridges instead of building walls" and as an intro to a canned line about how if fighting for equal pay is playing the woman card "then deal me in."
That's all fine, but it seems almost beside the point. Trump is not some bog-standard Republican politician who doesn't like Clinton's favorite equal pay bill.
James Pethokoukis writes about economic policy for the conservative American Enterprise Institute and has a new column out today titled "Donald Trump's policies are even worse than you fear."
In honor of Trump's win tonight:— James Pethokoukis (@JimPethokoukis) April 27, 2016
"Donald Trump's policies are even worse than you fear" https://t.co/8k8kuqBrLm
Democrats have thus far resisted fully unloading on Trump in part because they hesitate to fully reveal exactly how weak a general election candidate he would likely be. But it's not necessary to wait all the way until Trump is crowned in Cleveland to start rolling out the big guns. In fact, hitting Trump while the nomination is still at least a little up in the air and anti-Trump conservatives are actively hitting him too gives it added oomph.
Supporters of both Democratic candidates are eager to be excited about something after years of small-ball and gridlock. A landslide victory against Trump is an exciting prospect that will bring Democrats together. It's time for Hillary to start painting the picture of how she plans to win it.