Hillary's dilemma: A nuanced liberal who can't get liberals excited

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Hillary Clinton is in a box that she can’t seem to get out of.

She wants to come off as being as progressive as Bernie Sanders, but with more realistic goals. She wants to tap the liberal enthusiasm that has more than eight in 10 younger voters flocking to her older opponent, but keeps reminding everyone that idealism only goes so far and she’s the adult in the room. She rebels at the idea that she’s part of the establishment, but runs an ad showing pictures of herself on the public stage going back decades.

And then there’s the $675,000 from Goldman Sachs. Clinton keeps insisting that she’s tough on Wall Street and that she can’t be bought, but can’t say what is obvious, that she took a chance to make some easy money.

The result is a message that’s as muddled as the Iowa caucus results. Which, by the way, Clinton deserves credit for winning, but edging Sanders by three-tenths of a percentage point isn’t exactly a thrill. And she’s pretty openly running to lose less badly here in New Hampshire, hoping that the press will credit her with a respectful finish.

Bill Clinton's full-throated attack yesterday on Sanders' proposals, and on his supporters as sexist and misogynist, can only be read as a sign of desperation. His wife is even losing women to Sanders here in New Hampshire by 8 points, according to a CNN/WMUR poll.

Clinton brought passion to the MSNBC debate, but she might have gone at Sanders a bit too hard, accusing him of “artful smears,” among other things. He was disciplined and didn’t take the bait, though he is noticeably uncomfortable discussing foreign policy.

And everywhere Hillary goes, the email scandal follows her like a dark cloud—even as she assured Chuck Todd that she’s 100 percent confident it won’t cause her candidacy to implode.

Perhaps her worst moment at the New Hampshire debate was when she was fending off Sanders’ accusation of being an establishment figure—by clumsily saying that was impossible because she’d be the first female president. It was an inopportune time to play the gender card. Clinton is a former first lady, former senator and former member of President Obama’s Cabinet. Of course she’s part of the establishment. (Sanders shot back by saying anyone with a Super PAC that collects $15 million from Wall Street fits that definition.)

Clinton is steeped in the issues, but in an echo of 2008, she has trouble connecting on an emotional level. Sanders, by contrast, can just rail about the millionaires and billionaires. Clinton offers nuanced policies that would move beyond Obama’s record without venturing into the far reaches of Bernie land.

And nuance isn’t selling well this year.

Bernie is talking about a political revolution. Hillary is talking about an evolution. Which ignites the grass roots more?

As the Washington Post noted, when Chuck Todd asked Clinton which of her proposals would be Job One, she gave a 293-word answer: “I’m for a lot of things. If

I’m so fortunate to get the nomination, I will begin to work immediately on putting together an agenda, beginning to talk with members of Congress and others about how we can push forward.”

In newspaper terms, she’s all B-matter, no headline.

Hillary Clinton is still the presumptive Democratic nominee. But Bernie Sanders is tugging her to the left in a way that won’t be helpful in a general election.