Recently Bill Maher made a half-serious joke about Hillary Clinton's rocky journey to the White House - noting that she "just doesn't know how to campaign." He said something like: "Last time you lost to an unknown inexperienced young black guy and now you're losing to a 72 year old Jewish socialist. We're making it as easy as we can, but could you help out a little?"
I really admire Bill Maher and I find myself agreeing with him, almost all the time. But not this time. It does seem accurate to say that Hillary's momentum is off, she has watched a very sizeable lead in Iowa disappear as Bernie Sanders came on --as seemingly unstoppable as a long-in-the-tooth Sorcerer's Apprentice.
But it is inaccurate to say that she doesn't know how to campaign. Hillary Clinton is in fierce campaign mode - and unlike most of the other candidates, she is addressing issues directly and forcefully, demonstrating that she is both knowledgeable and experienced.
The reason why she is faltering in the polls is not that she is inept. It is because she has lost her narrative. Or - more to the point - the Narrative has lost her.
Voters look to political candidates to tell them a story about themselves. Hillary's story, early on, had vast appeal - the appeal of a candidate campaigning to be the first woman president of the United States of America.
In 2008, she rode that same surge of momentum, but a young relatively inexperienced senator came along with a narrative that superseded hers - Barack Obama was running to be the first black President of the U.S. -- that story took off on its own - and that story became our history.
Now Bernie Sanders, a 72 year old Jewish socialist, trundles along - with his anecdotal predictions of "Revolution" - and he gets close to knocking Hillary off the charts. Whether you think the Washington Post was excessively harsh in painting Sanders as "not a brave truth-teller. He is a politician selling his own brand of fiction" - it is entirely fair to let the emphasis remain on the word "fiction" - which (until the politician is elected to office) is a useful descriptive of any candidate trying to persuade the public to accept his/her story of the state of the union - and how to change and better it.
As Nicholas Kristof, (a self-confessed "admirer" of Sanders) noted recently in his New York Times column, there are fact-based concerns and unanswered questions about how Bernie will realize his ambitious agenda. Kristof's questions left Sanders looking like an absentminded professor, as he quoted the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group that found that Sanders' sums come up short by $3 trillion over a decade. But his followers, especially the disenchanted young, aren't reading the story's fine print - the bigger story sounds like perfect panacea.
(I remember a sociology professor I had in grad school, looking out at his class of hippie revolutionaries, fresh from People's Park protests, who observed (cynically, we thought) that "real revolution will never happen again in the U.S." The American Revolution, he said, built "institutions" in its wake: among them a system of government, a Constitution - the results of the hard intellectual work and compromise that followed the bloody battles for independence from England -after the heady phrase-making and call-to-arms of citizens was over.
But, getting back to Hillary -- it isn't only fresh idealistic narratives bumping earlier idealistic stories out of the running that appears to be shadowing her. The great enthusiasm for Hillary early on was also eroded because of the lack of faith in women's narratives in the long run. Hillary once travelled to China -- where she said that "Women's rights are human rights" - but that's exactly where the cracks in the narrative edifice begin to form.
Ultimately, it is my opinion that we still doubt women's aspirations to high office. We suspect they can't make it when the going gets tough. Despite all the consciousness-raising (one of the less grounded "institutions" generated by the protest movements of the 60's and 70's) - Hillary Clinton has undergone more savage on-line (and in other speechifying) abuse, as a woman (and just because she is a woman) than any other candidate running. (& notwithstanding Trump's sexist snark about Carly Fiorino's face) I have read and heard, over the years, a staggering number of character-assassination style attacks on her, often based solely on her physical appearance, her voice - and repeatedly, her private life.
Lena Dunham (of the hit HBO series, "Girls") and loyal campaigner for Hillary -- has spoken out about the adjectives routinely applied to her that would never enter a discussion of a male candidate - that she is "shrill", "frumpy", "fake", etc.
These adjectives are stealth missiles that can "take out" the story of one extraordinary woman - running on her record - entitled to her own story, based more on "real life" than any fictional future.
Let's see how the story ends - but let's not provide an ending before we let the plot play out. No candidate has all the answers, Hillary Clinton has a few more non-fictional ones than all the others.
- Carol Muske-Dukes