Clinton is tough, but can she unify country?

Hillary Clinton has the toughness to win the election, but it’s not clear if she can do so with a unifying message.
Hillary Clinton has the toughness to win the election, but it’s not clear if she can do so with a unifying message. AP

You can look at Hillary Clinton’s path to this juncture and marvel at how difficult she has often made things for herself.

That’s a legitimate perspective. She’s a deeply flawed politician.

But she’s also a preternaturally determined, resourceful and patient one. Her path illustrates that just as compellingly.

Clinton never retreated. Never gave up.

And as the returns from Super Tuesday came in, nudging her closer to the Democratic nomination, I realized that we were seeing the vindication of a fortitude and fierceness that warrant as much notice as her less savory qualities.

Let’s give her this moment, because she fought her way here. She tuned out the naysayers. She turned a blind eye to all her scars. Her ability to do that may reflect unrestrained ambition, a sturdy confidence in her mission or – more likely – an intricate cat’s cradle of both. Whichever the case, it demonstrates a grit that could be her greatest asset in a general election.

But grit won’t be enough.

The surprising, impressive success of Sanders, who had his own key wins Tuesday, has made that clear. There’s an ire and a disgust in the body politic, and they’re built on a belief that the system is rigged, the status quo is unacceptable and its guardians are untrustworthy.

Clinton is poorly positioned to mollify that rage, and the reason isn’t just coziness with Wall Street. She’s political royalty, and she can put the crown deep in a closet; she can renounce it all she wants. There are voters who will still see it there.

And oh, the baggage she carries! Many more Americans have an unfavorable impression of her than a favorable one: In a Quinnipiac University poll from early February, the split was 56 to 39 percent.

Democrats are aware of that, and have consoled themselves by focusing on who her Republican opponent might be: Trump. He racked up victory after victory on Tuesday, and Clinton’s remarks at a celebratory rally in Miami on Tuesday night were a targeted rebuke of him.

Mocking his slogan, she said that the country’s challenge was “not to make America great again. America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole.”

To attain the presidency, a politician needn’t be adored – just less loathed than the alternative.

In that same Quinnipiac poll, Trump’s unfavorable to favorable ratio was even worse than Clinton’s: 59 to 34 percent. Her supporters and advisers are accordingly crafting a strategy of brutal negativity and relentless attacks, as The New York Times reported earlier this week. David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, said a Clinton bid would be less “hope and change” than “hate and castrate.”

There are several problems with “hate and castrate.” One is that Trump already dwells in the sewer and most voters know it; to join him there isn’t to expose him but to degrade yourself.

Another is that it doesn’t address the yearning to rebel I mentioned earlier. And a disappointed Sanders voter with that yearning could, in a general election, sit on the sidelines or vote for Trump, unless she makes some adjustments.

Worst of all, an epically nasty general-election campaign would do nothing to unite the country and give the next president much of a chance of governing effectively.

Clinton has the toughness to engage in – and survive – a brutally ugly contest. She also has the smarts to know the cost of it. Has she honed the character and nimbleness to prevail in a more inspiring, unifying way?

As well as we know her, this is yet to be revealed.

Twitter: @FrankBruni.