Only yesterday Hillary Clinton was the beloved feminist destined to break through the glass ceiling over the Oval Office, there to triumphantly reprise the anthem of ferocious estrogen: "I am woman, hear me roar." Alas, the roar has become a nervous squeak in the wake of her not-so-terrific Tuesday in Indiana.
She's the most famous woman in the world, but on the eve of her coronation as the nominee of the Democrats, the euphoria was far from unanimous. Pollsters say a majority of young women just don't like her very much. Her accomplishments of yore are merely history, like the battles of the Peloponnesian War.
She's limping toward the nomination to face an unlikely Republican nominee who was treated as a joke, a clown and a blowhard just yesterday. He's still blowing hard, and she's still the way to bet. But suddenly there's a confusing new world out there. One prominent polling company, Rasmussen Reports, says its recent Clinton-Trump matchup poll was almost dead even. It's only May, of course. But still.
She's caught in the inevitable traps of high-octane politics, a flustered feminist shadow of the heroic survivor she once was. Everything she says seems to offend someone in her fragile base. When someone asked what she thought of the woman-baiting rhetoric aimed at her, she replied with the sly spunk reminiscent of the animated feminist warrior she once was. "I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave."
But the tough talk-back was quickly walked back to the politically correct doublespeak mush now required for the pols on the left and right. Native Americans complained that "reservation" must be dispatched with "Indian" to the glossary of banished words. Her campaign retreated deeper into the pot of mush: "Hillary meant no disrespect to Native Americans," a spokeswoman said. "She wants this election to be about lifting people up, not tearing them down." But the Native Americans wanted Hillary's scalp.
Donald Trump, who relishes being called politically incorrect, couldn't wait to turn up tweet heat, with a preview of the kind of take-no-prisoners treatment that lies ahead for the Democratic nominee: "Crooked Hillary Clinton said she is used to 'dealing with men who get off the reservation.' Actually, she has done poorly with such men!"
This is politics as farce, with Clinton once more playing a straight man. Those whose sitcom experience doesn't reach back to the days when she was young and hip might learn something by watching reruns of "A Different World," which satirized sexual and interracial politics in those ancient times. In an episode in 1992 — the famous Year of the Woman — there's a character named Hilliard Blinton, a male version of Hillary Clinton. Hilliard's wife has presidential aspirations, and Hilliard is crushed by the experience of suddenly playing second banana. "I've learned to smile, gaze, barbecue," he says. "The only thing radical about me is how much I've changed." He breaks down in tears and is told to learn how to turn his reactions off and on.
Whether or not the producers of the show had access to tea leaves or crystal balls, they turned out to be creatively prophetic. "It's a peculiarly touching sequence, 25 years later," writes Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker, fretting over Hillary's predicament, "the hyper-controlled persona that she's had to maintain, during decades in the public eye, to avoid triggering the contempt of voters."
That makes Donald Trump's aggressive style particularly menacing. The left judges Clinton as a "sellout corporatist" and the right sees whatever centrist positions she once held as having been pushed leftward by Bernie Sanders. Now Native Americans view her metaphorical spontaneity with the aggrieved anger that would have puzzled Geronimo. A sexist might say she doesn't have a lot of wiggle room.
She has ample company on the search for wiggle room. A Chinese media outlet that speaks for the Beijing government only recently complained that the Donald is a racist, and compared him to Mussolini and Hitler. Now it seems not so sure. Xinhua, the state's official press agency, observed Wednesday that Trump could defeat Clinton if he tones down his "explosive rhetoric."
Last December, David Cameron, the British prime minister, was swept up in excitement regarding a citizens' petition with 500,000 signatures calling on the government to bar Donald Trump from even entering the U.K. The prime minister recently called him "divisive, stupid and wrong." Now he faces the prospect of having to think of something nice and soothing to say when the Donald makes the ritual tour of the British and European capitals after the Cleveland convention, and drops in for tea at 10 Downing Street. No lemon and lots of sugar.