Contra Brooks, it’s not complicated at all.
1. She still has strong and passionate primary opposition. Her general election opponent no longer does. Her net favorability rating among Democrats dropped from 61% in January to 36% in April, and no doubt has fallen further since then. Just eyeballing, this looks like the primary explanation of her dramatic drop in approval in recent months.
That doesn’t mean she’ll necessary recover smartly as soon as the primary is over. It depends on how quickly she can unite her party. If she can do so expeditiously, her approval rating will recover with similar speed – not to wonderful numbers, but at least to middling numbers.
2. She no longer benefits from contrasts with someone disfavored. When she was Secretary of State, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people who disagreed with this or that about Obama’s policy or tactics could express buyer’s remorse. Maybe Clinton would have gotten a better health care plan through more efficiently; maybe Clinton would have been tougher on Putin; whatever. So she got the approval of those who approved of Obama, plus the approval of some of those who were disappointed in him.
Similarly, when she was First Lady, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people could express their personal distaste for President Clinton’s behavior without joining the Clinton haters. So she got the approval of those who were loyal to her husband, plus the approval of some of those who were appalled by him but approved of his policies or performance, plus some of those who who had never much liked Bill but thought the Republicans were out to lunch.
Now, because she has for so long been the inevitable nominee, she is the point of comparison, with everyone else being defined as “not Hillary” in this way or that. And, since none of the “everyone else” actually has much of a record that matters, all of these comparisons drag her down, albeit differently with different people.
Again, that may change once we get into the swing of a general election – but it may not. If the election becomes a referendum on Hillary Clinton rather than a choice between alternatives, she’s got a problem.
3. Her husband is not dead, but very much alive, and running what looks like a family scam operation. There are plenty of examples of female politicians inheriting their husband’s or father’s place as party or faction standard-bearer, and even rising to the top of the political heap by doing so. But they usually do so after the man in question is deceased. Hillary Clinton has to define herself as both her husband’s heir and her own person, and she has to do this while Bill is still running around doing whatever he does.
And a bunch of what he does involves his presidential charity. The Clinton Foundation looks to just about everyone like a racket, because it is one, at least in part. It has a thoroughly amorphous mission statement. It doesn’t make grants, instead keeping its money in-house and running its own programs, which for many years were not well-audited. It employs the Clinton family and its cronies. It “convenes global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” That sounds an awful lot like this kind of mockable nonsense.
And, of course, it pulls donations from wealthy connected individuals, organizations and governments around the world, becoming a walking conflict-of-interest for anyone actually involved in policymaking. As such, it’s a perfect synecdoche for the liberal ruling class’s mode of ruling, the way it gets rich and pats itself on the back for saving the world by doing so, and yet never clearly saves anything.
That, of course, isn’t the whole story about the Clinton Foundation – the organization does run a variety of actual programs – but it’s a big part of the story, and it’s the part that is a PR disaster for Clinton. And it’s a relatively new disaster for her, because only recently has she been both part of the foundation and a candidate for President.
I have no idea how she can fix either part of this – she can’t make her husband go away, and she can’t let herself get into his shadow, and she can’t shake the very negative taint of the family business. And the most amazing thing – to my mind – is that neither of them really seems to see that this is a problem.
4. Nobody likes anybody. Seriously – who is a widely-beloved political figure these days? The last time anybody in national life had that kind of broad popular appeal was the first Obama inaugural, and that honeymoon lasted about five minutes. Trump, like Clinton, is widely-despised – but so is Ted Cruz, and it’s not like there was any love for Jeb Bush. Mitt Romney was only grudgingly accepted by his party, and never managed to connect with the electorate as a whole, despite being an obviously decent and public-minded person. Meanwhile, relative to Congress, Hillary Clinton is downright popular. We may just have to recalibrate to a scale where the baseline level of hatred towards political figures is high relative to historic norms.
The other stuff – personality stuff, bad relationship with the press, lousy speaking style, sexist double-standards – probably all matters, but it doesn’t explain the depths to which she’s fallen.