The presidency is Hillary Clinton's to lose - here are 12 ways she could lose it

By James Hohmann

The elites in Washington almost uniformly believe Hillary Clinton will be elected president in November. The conventional wisdom underlying coverage of 2016 is that Donald Trump will go down in flames and probably take the Republican Senate with him.

The presumptive GOP nominee has a well-documented history of misogyny, xenophobia and demagoguery. He has alienated women, Hispanics, Muslims, African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. He has mocked the disabled, prisoners of war and Seventh-day Adventists. The Speaker of the House and both living former Republican presidents are withholding endorsements.

It should be a slam dunk for HRC, right?

But, but, but: Six months is an eternity in politics, and a year ago no one in the chattering class - including me - believed Trump had any real shot at becoming the Republican standard bearer. With Clinton struggling to sew up the Democratic nomination against a socialist septuagenarian - she's expected to lose tomorrow's Kentucky primary - we cannot foreclose the possibility that she will botch the fall campaign against the billionaire businessman.

The presidency is hers to lose, but here are a dozen ways Clinton can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory:

1. Complacency

Remember the Michigan primary? Every poll showed Clinton up double digits, but she lost to Bernie Sanders. One reason is that supporters and field staffers believed she had it in the bag.

The campaign has been using last week's Quinnipiac polls showing tight races in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania to shake a greater sense of urgency into donors and activists.

Clinton is at her worst when she thinks she's at her best. She tends to rise to the occasion only when her back is against the wall. Remember 2008? Or recall last summer, when Sanders looked like nothing more than a nuisance and polls showed her ahead by more than 50 points, how she joked about wiping her server clean with a cloth and how her handlers literally used ropes to corral journalists at a parade. Over time, she found herself neck-and-neck with Sanders, who is a weak candidate by most traditional measures. Under heavy pressure in the days before Iowa, when it looked like she could lose the caucuses, she temporarily became a much better campaigner - then backslid after her wins in Nevada and South Carolina.

2. Unforced errors

When Hillary goes off her carefully-scripted message, she has a tendency to gaffe. One reason she is expected to lose Kentucky tomorrow is her declaration at a town hall this spring that, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

Don't forget about her other gaffes, like when she invoked 9/11 to defend her coziness with Wall Street, when she called Republicans the enemy or when she said she and her husband were "dead broke" when they left the White House in 2001.

And there was the time Clinton incensed the gay community by praising the Reagans for starting "a national conversation" about HIV/AIDS, prompting a quick retraction.

3. Not inspiring

Clinton cannot just make this election a referendum on Trumpism. She must outline a compelling vision for where she wants to take the country to fully activate the coalition that powered Barack Obama.

"I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama," Clinton said at The Post's debate in March.

The presumptive Democratic nominee campaigns in prose, not poetry. And she does not always try to be uplifting in her speeches.

It's part of the explanation for why so many millenials, including young women, have spurned her for Bernie. While Sanders promises tuition-free college, she talks about extending an obscure tax credit. As my colleague David Fahrenthold explained in a story about Clinton's wonkiness last week, this credit can be worth up to $2,500: "But only if students find their Form 1098-T, then fill out the relevant portions of Form 8863, then enter the amount from lines 8 and 19 of Form 8863 in lines 68 and 50 of their Form 1040." That is not going to send a thrill up Chris Matthews's leg...

4. Not being 'likable enough'

My colleagues Dan Balz and Anne Gearan spoke with more than a dozen Clinton allies about her biggest weaknesses for a piece on Monday's front page. "I bring it down to one thing and one thing only, and that is likability," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who has conducted a series of focus groups for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Hart said this is "about the lowest bar" for a candidate, and yet Clinton has lower likability numbers today than she did when the campaign began.

Balz and Gearan report that Clinton advisers are working to soften her stiff public image by highlighting her compassion and playing up her problem-solving abilities. "I mean, we can't give her an injection to make her an energetic candidate," one longtime Clinton family supporter and donor said on background.

5. Moving too far to the right

The Sanders campaign has circulated stories about Clinton forces reaching out to top Jeb Bush donors to convince them that "that she represents their values better" than Trump.

Clinton, who used to brag about being a Goldwater Girl in 1964, will be very tempted to appeal aggressively to moderate Republicans who are turned off by Trump. On paper, the Democrat will actually be more of a hawk and more willing to use military force than the Republican. The Donald is all over the place on policy, but Clinton is presently to his right on trade and campaign finance.

She needs Sanders supporters to unite behind her. If it looks like she's shifting rightward to win votes, she will look inauthentic and many Bernie people will stay on the sidelines.

6. Moving too far to the left

Clinton has treated Sanders with kid gloves recently. She wants him and his people to fall in line after the July convention in Philadelphia, and she calculates that antagonizing him is not worth sewing up the nomination earlier.

The Vermont senator has made clear he wants significant concessions, including very liberal policy planks in the party platform. The Clinton people will be inclined to give on a lot because the platform is not binding. Just last week, for instance, she embraced several reforms to the Federal Reserve that are sought by the progressive wing of the party.

But, if Hillary continues to lurch leftward to satisfy the Bernie people, it will be harder to win those in the middle and woo disaffected Republicans.

You might think it's unfair to say Clinton cannot go too far left or too far right. But everyone running for president has this problem. It is a difficult needle to thread, yet the Clintons have proven deft at triangulation. Now, Hillary needs to be Goldilocks.

7. Bungling her VP selection

There's no perfect pick, and candidates who look great on paper might turn out to fall flat - or have skeletons in their closet.

Citing four people close to the campaign, USA Today reports this morning that "Clinton is considering a running mate who could make a direct appeal to supporters of Sanders, bridging a generational and political divide" and that "Clinton's chief requirements include a candidate's resume and a fighter capable of hand-to-hand combat with Trump. The campaign's vetting also prioritizes demographics over someone from a key swing state as she seeks to unify the Democratic voting base."

There are parts of every would-be number two's record that will upset at least some portion of the Democratic Party. Take this story on Politico: "Targeted by progressive activists hoping to kill his chances of being picked as Clinton's running mate, Julián Castro is set this week to announce changes to what's become a hot-button Housing and Urban Development program for selling bad mortgages on its books."

8. Allowing herself to get defined as an insider

Clinton lost to Obama in 2008 by underestimating the electorate's hunger for change. Once again, Hillary risks coming to represent the status quo in the eyes of voters who want a renegade.

"Right now, about 6 in 10 Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump ... But the country is faring even worse. ... 64.9 percent think we are heading down the wrong track," The Post's Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt noted last week in a column warning Democrats not to celebrate Trump. "So what if even voters who respect Clinton's competence reject her as the embodiment of business as usual? And what if even voters who do not like Trump's bigotry or bluster care more that he will, in their view, shake things up? ... I do have faith in the American voter, I really do. But when two-thirds of the country is unhappy, a rational outcome can't be taken for granted."

9. Not directly engaging with Trump's attacks

In trying to stay above the fray, Clinton could find herself defined by Trump. Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? John Kerry didn't push back forcefully enough early on, and he paid a price.

Last week, Trump called Clinton an "enabler" of her husband's behavior. While objectively offensive, the Democratic front-runner steadfastly refused to respond. "I'm going to let him run his campaign however he chooses," she told reporters. "I have nothing to say about him."

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Trump gives a whole new meaning to term "bully pulpit." And there is very conventional logic in not responding to every insult and attack: it leads to more repetition of the original charge and keeps it in the news.

Hillary dislikes the media. Her impulse is to keep the press away, to only give the appearance of access and to focus her attention on friendly outlets that will engage in puffery.

Trump, to his credit, talks to basically everyone. It gets him in trouble, like when he told Chris Matthews that women who get abortions should be punished. But the tradeoff is that he has often gotten to set the terms of the debate. If he repeats something enough times, however preposterous, some may come to believe it.

10. Bill going 'off the reservation'

"I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak," Hillary recently said on CNN. A few days later, she clarified on MSNBC that she was not referring to her husband - but Rick Lazio and Vladimir Putin.

The former president has caused fewer headaches for his wife's campaign than he did in 2008, when he called Obama's bid "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," said the other side was playing the "race card," and downplayed a loss in South Carolina by noting Jesse Jackson Jr. had won there too.

That does not mean he has not ruined news cycles for his wife in 2016 - or has the ability to.

Remember his outburst on the eve of the New Hampshire primary when he accused Sanders of being dishonest and his supporters of being sexist?

Or when he got into an on-stage argument with Black Lives Matter protestors in Philadelphia last month, defending his crime bill and his wife's 1996 comment about brining "super-predators ... to heel"? The next day, he said: "I almost want to apologize." But then didn't.

The campaign must manage WJC appropriately. It's hard to control any spouse; a former president - especially "The Big Dog" - is even harder.

Trump will try to make Hillary own all the unpopular elements of the Clinton era. Expect to hear a lot about Marc Rich's pardon and the Lincoln Bedroom.

Hillary will take credit for the popular elements of her husband's tenure and take umbrage when Trump tries to pin the unpopular parts on her, as she already has with the crime bill and Wall Street deregulation.

11. Being overly secretive

Clinton is not widely seen as trustworthy. Her refusal to release the transcripts of her speeches at Goldman Sachs will continue to dog her. Asked during a debate why she received $675,000 for three short appearances, she replied: "Well, I don't know. That's what they offered."

But Trump's refusal to release his tax returns - along with his evolving answers and lame excuses - neutralizes this potential problem for the Clinton campaign.

12. Getting indicted

It is unlikely, but the FBI investigation into Clinton's possible mishandling of classified information hangs like a cloud over her campaign.

"Investigators have found scant evidence tying Clinton to criminal wrongdoing, although they are still working on the case and charges have not been ruled out," my colleague Ellen Nakashima reported last week. "They have also been interviewing former aides to Clinton, including Cheryl Mills, who served as chief of staff while Clinton was secretary of state. Prosecutors and FBI agents hope to be able to interview Clinton as they try to wrap up the investigation."

Among other potential problems identified by supporters in Balz and Gearan's story Monday: "Clinton's unpopularity with white men, questions about whether her family philanthropic foundation helped donors and friends, and lingering clouds from her tenure at the State Department, including ... the Benghazi attacks in which four Americans were killed and her support for military intervention in Libya."

Don't forget, history is not on Hillary's side. Since World War II, only once has a party controlled the White House for three consecutive terms. (George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan by beating Mike Dukakis in 1988.)

Bottom line: Clinton is more likely than not to be president at this time next year, but the election will probably be closer than you think and Trump could actually win if she doesn't play her cards right.

- Washington Post

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