Michigan as microcosm: Hillary’s autumn vulnerability

    Democratic presidential candidate

    Democratic presidential candidate

    If you believe, as I do, that Donald Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton this fall and become America’s first certified autocrat, you need look no further for evidence than last night’s Michigan Democratic primary.

    To best understand why Hillary lost to Bernie Sanders, check out these exit poll stats: Blue-collar voters soundly rejected her, favoring Bernie by 14 percentage points (55-41). Meanwhile, 58 percent of all Democratic primary voters said that free trade takes away American jobs; those voters soundly rejected her as well, favoring Bernie by 17 percentage points (58-41).

    Ah yes, the trade issue.

    Last Thursday, when I listed the reasons why I believe Hillary is beatable this fall, I wrote this: “Hillary, who has been on the national stage for 24 years, is the establishment insider. She talks all too often like a calculating politician; Trump does not. He can cite any economic or societal ill that he wants – wage inequality, jobs going overseas – and simply ask, ‘What has Hillary ever done to fix that? What did her husband’s administration ever do to fix that?'”

    As they say in the Senate, I now wish to revise and extend those remarks.

    Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin went blue in both Obama elections. But last night’s Michigan Democratic tally, and those exit stats, remind us that Hillary’s standing with blue-collar voters is dangerously soft. Rust Belt manufacturing jobs have steadily disappeared during the past quarter century, and struggling workers pin the blame on free trade. Some experts agree with the workers; others do not. But Hillary’s problem is that she’s widely viewed as an establishment enabler of free trade – starting with her husband’s championing of NAFTA – and that’s a political liability.

    Bernie hit her hard in Sunday’s Michigan debate: “Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America. NAFTA, supported by the Secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest. Permanent trade relations with China cost us millions of jobs. Look, I was on a picket line in the early 1990s against NAFTA because you didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.”

    Bernie’s may well be wrong that NAFTA “cost us 800,000 jobs” – a ’15 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says that NAFTA’s adverse impact has been “modest” – but the point is, blue-collar Rust Belters believe in their gut that free trade is the enemy. And in the Michigan Democratic primary, they voted accordingly.

    And if they paid close attention to the Michigan debate, they may well have noticed Hillary’s slippery explanation of her switcheroo on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (This is the new pact that links 12 Pacific Rim economies.) She praised it for years when the deal was in the works, but last fall she said she was against it. She also spoke against it during the Michigan debate – and prompted Bernie to craft a tart response: “I am very glad that Secretary Clinton discovered religion on this issue….I was one of the first – not one of the last – to be in opposition to the TPP.”

    A few minutes later, Hillary responded: “I came out against the TP after it was finished. I thought it was reasonable to actually know what was in it before I opposed it.” That’s a tad better than her wince-worthy remark last fall: “As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.” But she had ample opportunities, over the years, to “learn” what was in it, and to inveigh against whatever she felt did not belong in it. (Bernie, in his campaign ads, assailed her various trade stances: “While others waffle, Bernie is fighting hundreds of thousands in new job losses.”)

    But with respect to blue-collar voters, Bernie is not her biggest problem. She remains comfortably ahead in the national delegate count – she’ll basically split Michigan’s delegates with Bernie (reflecting their near 50-50 vote tally); she widened her overall lead by slaughtering Bernie last night in Mississippi – and unless she’s humbled next Tuesday in Ohio and Illinois, she’ll remain the heavy favorite. Which means that her biggest problem will likely be Trump.

    Last night he strengthened his claim on the Republican crown with three more wins, and he predicted that he would win Rust Belt states in November. I don’t dispute that possibility. Unlike Hillary, he rails against the “stupid” trade deals. Unlike Hillary, he doesn’t have a track record of supporting trade deals. He’s a master of staying on offense, and he can make Hillary play defense on those trade deals. If he can exploit her softness with working-class voters and win some Rust Belt states, he can redraw the Electoral College map that has lately favored the Democrats.

    One other factor, much in evidence last night: The cable news networks shamelessly suck up to Trump. For nearly 50 minutes, They carried every worthless word that fell from Der Leader’s lips.

    Back in the era when Fidel Castro was full of beans, he’d rail for uninterrupted hours on Cuban TV – and what we saw last night was Fidel on QVC. There he was, hawking Trump steaks, Trump magazines, Trump wineries, Trump golf courses, Trump University (which doesn’t exist), and yet the cable networks refused to cut away….to Hillary, for instance. She was speaking live in Ohio, previewing an autumn agenda. Regardless of whether you agree with her – on trade or anything else – at least she was talking policy.

    But, according to what passes for cable news judgement, narcissism trumps substance. Welcome to the next eight months.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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