The most important question of the 2016 presidential campaign was asked by an Indian-American doctor and poet named Amit Majmudar in a Democratic forum on March 13. It was so important that the moderator, Jake Tapper, had Dr. Majmudar repeat it to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The doctor said his family was afraid of Donald Trump. “I am going to have one mission heading to the ballot box, which is to keep him out of office,” he announced. “Leaving aside the negative rhetoric and attack ads, none of which have worked so far, can you share with us three specific points of your anti-Trump game plan?”
Sanders’ response was very Bernie: Trump was a pathological liar and a billionaire. But Clinton’s was borderline weird, and now that she has reinforced her status as the likely Democratic nominee, it bears some scrutiny. She began with the spurious argument that she’d received 600,000 more votes than Trump in the primaries. Then she tried the victim-martyr route: “The Republicans have been after me for 25 years,” she said to applause from the faithful. “And there isn’t anything they haven’t already said about me. And in the course of dealing with all of this incoming fire from them, I have developed a pretty thick skin.” Then she made an oblique threat: that there were other arguments against Trump — the product of opposition research, she implied — that she was holding in reserve. “I’m not going to spill the beans right now,” she said.
Her final Trump card was foreign policy experience. She said that leaders of other countries had contacted her privately to say they hoped she’d win — an argument with less than zero impact on most American voters. She concluded, more relevantly, by contrasting her knowledge of the world with Trump’s bombast and inexperience.
I called Dr. Majmudar the next day and asked if he was satisfied with the response. He wasn’t. He said both Sanders and Clinton were “hewing to political techniques that have been ineffectual so far.” He said the idea that you could “expose” Trump was futile: “He gets exposed every few days, and it hasn’t worked so far.” And Clinton’s notion that the support of foreign leaders would help her was laughably naive because “Trump’s basic appeal is nativist.” The American people couldn’t depend on inspired leadership, he concluded. “We’re going to have to do it ourselves.”
Clinton seems particularly ill-equipped for the task. She is our very own quinoa and kale salad, nutritious but bland. Worse, she’s the human embodiment of the Establishment that Trump has been running against. “I am not a natural politician,” she has admitted, and Tapper asked her what she means by that. She said she couldn’t speak “in poetry” the way her husband and Barack Obama can. True dat, but poetry is only the beginning of Clinton’s deficiencies. Indeed, her real problem is that she’s too much of a politician. She still speaks like politicians did 20 years ago, when her husband was President. This year, the candidates who have seemed the most appealing — Trump, Sanders, John Kasich — don’t use the oratorical switchbacks that have been beaten to death since John F. Kennedy: “We need a uniter, not a divider.” They also, sadly, don’t take carefully nuanced positions. Asked about fracking in her Flint, Mich., debate with Sanders, Clinton split hairs with a microlaser, leaving everyone confused. Sanders simply said, “I do not support fracking.”
Clinton no doubt assumes that Trump will come after her personally — and that her thick skin will protect her. But here’s an easy one: What if Trump raises her husband’s “deplorable” — Sanders’ description— exploitation of Monica Lewinsky directly in a debate? Will she have the jujitsu cool to respond, “Deplorable? Hell, yeah. That’s why he slept on the couch for six months”?
There is an odd new law of U.S. politics: You can lie, as Trump does all the time, egregiously, but you can’t temporize. You can’t avoid a position on the XL pipeline or the Trans-Pacific trade deal, as Clinton tried to do in the campaign. You can’t try to please too many people too much of the time. Raising your voice to make a point — which Clinton does all the time, disastrously, because it seems such a conscious act — won’t get you anywhere unless you’re really angry.
In the end, I’m not at all certain that Clinton can beat Trump. He is free-form and anarchic and silly and devastating. She is rote. The answer to Dr. Majmudar’s question may involve a simplicity that eludes her. To beat Trump, she is going to have to be patient, dignified, self-deprecating, utterly factual and brutally honest (about herself). Poetry isn’t going to work this year.
This appears in the March 28, 2016 issue of TIME.