Eugene Robinson: Hillary Clinton far from finished as a contender

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WASHINGTON — In politics, as in many endeavors, it helps to be underestimated. In this sense, Hillary Clinton is doing great.

Clinton’s book tour, which bears some resemblance to a presidential campaign, is being portrayed as some kind of disaster. Her attempt to portray her family as less than fabulously wealthy was bad; her effort to justify that pretense was worse. Her political instincts seem rusty, her reflexes a bit slow. To top it off, the book she’s flogging — a memoir of her years as secretary of state — is not a publishing juggernaut, merely a best-seller.

At the same time, she is described as being cursed by inevitability. The logic, if that’s the right word, goes like this: If she decides to run, she is certain to win the Democratic nomination. Therefore, she probably won’t get it.

Nothing about the Hillary-is-finished narrative makes much sense to me. To the contrary, I think the past few weeks of scrutiny — and partisan attacks — may well have brightened her chances of becoming president, if that’s what she wants. I also think she’s being truthful when she says she hasn’t decided whether to run.

Finished? Polls have consistently shown that Clinton would defeat any of the Republicans frequently mentioned as potential candidates — but given the GOP field, perhaps this is not saying much. It may be more significant that while Clinton’s approval rating has dipped in some surveys, significantly more voters approve of her than disapprove. People are so fed up these days that any politician whose approval numbers are above water is doing just fine.

Is she vulnerable to an insurgent challenge from the activist left? She was in 2008. But is there another Barack Obama out there with the skill and charisma to beat her? If so, who might that be?

The person most often mentioned is Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose populist message is powerful and whose political acumen grows sharper by the day. Warren says she is “not running for president” but carefully phrases the demurral in the present tense, meaning “not running at this very minute.”

If Clinton decides not to run — or if she runs and her campaign falters — my guess is that Warren would quickly become a formidable contender for the nomination. Absent these circumstances, however, I see no indication that she intends to take on the Clinton machine the way Obama did.

For Clinton, the good news from a bad few weeks is that if she wants the nomination, she has a goal to focus on, an obstacle to overcome — and it’s not a particularly daunting one.

Her description of her family as “dead broke” upon leaving the White House was tone-deaf. Her subsequent attempt to distinguish her financial situation from that of the “truly well-off” — when Bill Clinton had made more than $100 million from speeches — was like nails on a blackboard.

Her task now is to convince voters that she can relate to the everyday concerns of the middle class. But she is already being given the benefit of the doubt.

Bill Clinton defended his wife in a “Meet the Press” interview, saying she had “advocated and worked as a senator for things that were good for ordinary people — and, before that, all her life.” It’s true that the Clintons are chummy with corporate America, but Republicans can hardly take this line of attack. And it’s also true that when her husband was in office, Hillary Clinton tried and failed to win health care reform that was truly universal — and more populist, in many ways, than the measures Obama managed to enact.

If Hillary Clinton, with an assist from Bill, can’t make voters believe that she’s back in touch with their lives — and that she understands how disillusioned they are with Wall Street and a financial system that seems designed to serve the very rich — then she doesn’t deserve the nomination.

This has to be part of her campaign message, which she should begin crafting. She can’t afford to let people think she doesn’t have one.