As general-election polls show a worrisome tightening of the likely race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Clinton team is beset by more advice—good, bad, and concern-trollish—than at any other time in this campaign. On Wednesday alone, the almost-nominee got three broad and differing critiques that were mostly intended to be helpful, but that instead pointed out the difficulty she’s having projecting her 2016 candidacy against a screen that’s covered in 25 years of nasty graffiti.
Yet all three sets of criticism offer insight at least worth pondering as she tries to unify the Democratic Party, learn from, and incorporate the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders, and turn out the Obama coalition in numbers large enough to defeat the menace that is Donald Trump in November. The most scrutinized woman in American political history will benefit from a campaign built around a broad mandate for change; it’s in her interest to have a vibrant, even occasionally contentious debate with the Sanders team about the party’s goals and values, and then move forward to November with a campaign that’s pushing ideas, not just trading insults with Trump, the human insult generator.
One critique this week came from both Clinton and Sanders supporters, who wish she’d learn from the speech Senator Elizabeth Warren gave to the Center for Popular Democracy Tuesday night, eviscerating Trump on both his policy stands and his personal shtick. Warren was indeed masterful, showing how to needle Trump while shredding his political platform. She took the Clinton campaign’s ad showing that Trump had “hoped” for the housing crash back in 2006 to show that he’s a “small, insecure money-grubber.” Trump “roots for people to get thrown out of their house,” she argued, because he “doesn’t care who gets hurt, as long as he makes a profit.”
Now, Clinton made similar points in a speech Wednesday too. But just as Warren showed in 2012, with that oft-copied speech arguing that nobody gets rich on their own, the Massachusetts senator has developed a compelling, human framework for her critique, bringing in the families she met in her bankruptcy research who lost homes. Some of Warren’s appeal is stylistic; she knows how to be angry without seeming shrill (she’s come a long way from her early 2012 campaign days when even admirers worried she was too professorial to be a politician.)
But Warren’s delivery also benefits from telling an overarching story about how the system has been rigged by political decisions that helped the rich and hurt the poor. Clinton has yet to go that far. Although her platform promises a long list of reforms that would even the playing field and widen opportunity—from a minimum-wage hike to childcare and preschool assistance to massive college subsidies, stronger labor laws and infrastructure investments—Clinton is not yet telling a story that makes her prescription sufficiently compelling. Just as President Obama’s 2012 campaign took off when he began to incorporate more populist fire, hers likely will as well.