Once More with Feeling

There are lulls. March Madness was over. The college basketball team that simply never lost a game, Kentucky, finally lost one to the young lads from Wisconsin, who then lost to the guys from Duke, the college basketball team that America hates almost as much as they hate the New York Yankees. No one likes inevitable winners, but the matter was settled, and baseball season was only beginning. The playoffs in professional basketball and professional hockey were weeks away too – there were a few more wild card slots to fill. Nothing was happening there. The only big sporting event of the day was the Masters thing down in Augusta, but watching golf, even at its highest levels, is like watching paint dry, with whispered commentary. Golf isn’t compelling, only mildly interesting. America was out of diversions, so it was a good day for Hillary Clinton to announce, finally, that she was running for president, so she did:

Ending two years of speculation and coy denials, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced on Sunday that she would seek the presidency for a second time, immediately establishing herself as the likely 2016 Democratic nominee.

“I’m running for president,” she said with a smile near the end of a two-minute video released just after 3 p.m.

“Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote – because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

So she’s off to Iowa, to fight for everyday Americans, hoping they will see her as their champion. Maybe they will, even with her complex history:

Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign will open a new chapter in the extraordinary life of a public figure who has captivated and polarized the country since her husband, former President Bill Clinton, declared his intention to run for president in 1991. Mrs. Clinton was the co-star of the Clinton administration, the only first lady ever elected to the United States Senate and a globe-trotting diplomat who surprised her party by serving dutifully under the president who defeated her.

She will embark on her latest – and perhaps last – bid for the White House with nearly universal name recognition and a strong base of support, particularly among women. But in a campaign that will inevitably be about the future, Mrs. Clinton, 67, enters as a quintessential baby boomer, associated with the 1990s and with the drama of the Bill Clinton years.

She has a plan to counter that:

This campaign will begin on a small scale and build up to an effort likely to cost more than any presidential bid waged before, with Mrs. Clinton’s supporters and outside “super PACs” looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion in a blitz of donations from Democrats who overwhelmingly support her candidacy. Much of that enthusiasm is tied to the chance to make history by electing a woman to the presidency. But some, too, owes to the lack of compelling alternatives in a party trying desperately to hold on to the White House when Republicans control the House and the Senate.

Mrs. Clinton’s declaration on Sunday is to be followed by a series of intimate but critical campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire. She will use them to reintroduce herself to voters and begin to lay out the central theme of her candidacy: improving the economic fortunes of the middle class, with an emphasis on increasing wages and reducing income inequality.

In the video, she does not appear until after 90 seconds of images featuring personal stories of others, each describing how they are getting ready to start something new.

The video prominently features a black couple expecting a child, a young Asian-American woman, and two men who say they are getting married. It also shows plenty of the white, working-class people who were crucial to her previous White House bid and signals that she intends to make helping the middle class and reducing income inequality major themes of her campaign.

Near the end of the video, Mrs. Clinton finally appears outside a suburban home and says: “I’m getting ready to do something too. I’m running for president.”

That’s the essence of it. She’s a populist now. Tag along for the ride, and Slate’s John Dickerson (who was just named to replace the retiring Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation) sees what’s happening here:

She makes it clear that she is not running for all the people. As she wrote on Twitter, “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” She is not promising to be the champion of “every American” but rather “everyday Americans.” In that grammatical choice lies the campaign: a fight for the people who have been left out of the economic recovery.

In order to put the voters center stage, Clinton doesn’t appear until more than 90 seconds into the video. By then, all the voters she hopes to stitch into her coalition have seen a version of themselves. In the most recent CBS poll, Clinton gets low marks for honesty – only 42 percent of the country thinks she is honest and trustworthy – and her favorability is low (only 26 percent have a favorable opinion of her). For the viewers who have these chilly views of her, this opening gambit was a warmth-graft, associating her candidacy with superbly shot images of attractive, striving Americans. It was the visual equivalent of motherhood and apple pie wrapped in the American dream.

And she’s learned her lessons:

Clinton promised hard work in her kick-off announcement, a promise her husband often made. Voters like to know a politician will battle for them, but in Clinton’s case the pledge goes beyond that. It sends a message meant to counteract one of the attacks Republicans will make against her. Today on Face the Nation, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus immediately talked about Clinton’s air of “inevitability” when he addressed her candidacy. That word is meant to convey the idea that she thinks she should just be handed the crown and waltz into the White House. Clinton is trying to send a different message. “I’m hitting the road to earn your vote,” she said in her blue windbreaker standing outside what may or may not be a typical middle class home. She’s not “starting a conversation” on a chintz couch, as she did in her 2008 announcement video. The message is that she’s getting after it this time.

Maybe she is, but Bill Curry, who was White House counsel to her husband, is not impressed:

Clinton personifies the meritocracy that to an angry middle class looks increasingly like just another privileged caste. It’s the anger captured best by the old “Die Yuppie Scum” posters and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s on the rise. Republicans love to paint Democrats as elitists. That is how the first two Bushes took out Dukakis, Gore and Kerry – and how Jeb plans to take out Hillary. When she says she and Bill were broke when they left the White House; when she sets her own email rules and says it was only for her own convenience; when she hangs out with the Davos, Wall Street or Hollywood crowds, she makes herself a more inviting target.

She will also get no break in the media:

All political reportage is full of insider tales about how every link of sausage is made. When House Democrats resumed their push for a minimum wage hike, staff framed the initiative not as sound policy but as clever politics. Even if authorized, nearly all such leaks harm the principle. On Friday, Clinton’s campaign let slip its aim to raise $2.5 billion; maybe that’s not the best way to say hello to a struggling middle class. Someone gabbed about the message of Hillary’s planned sit downs with average families, a sure fire way to make the families look and feel like props – and to make the whole, hollow exercise look and feel like a hollow exercise.

That’s harsh, and even harsher because it’s true, and Curry says that doesn’t even account for her campaign’s three big interlocking issues:

The first is how they raise their money. The second is how they craft their message. The third pertains to policy.

To get the money they think they need candidates who crook the knee to moneyed interests. They spend vast sums on polls, focus groups and data mining to find out what messages to send and to whom, and vaster sums to send them. The need to serve their donors keeps them from solving real problems. With so little to show for their service, they must rely even more on paid propaganda. The emptier their ads, the more of them they need.

The first thing to know about this system is how well it works for Republicans, most of whom would back the status quo with or without the money. Since they can’t afford to be too honest about policy anyway, consultants’ metaphors and themes suit them fine, as do the strict limitations of texts, tweets and ads.

The opposite is true for Democrats. When they truckle to the status quo, they break sacred vows. Their base feels most betrayed – but everyone notices and no one likes what they see. Convinced by their consultants that politics is all about metaphors and emotion, they treat issues as landmines and do everything possible to avoid stepping on one. They skip real debates to pursue what Obama consigliere David Axelrod calls ‘the politics of biography.’ Trading real reform for public policy vaporware, they lose all sense of purpose – and eventually stop making sense.

Curry is one unhappy Democrat:

Clinton seems as disconnected from the public mood now as she did in 2008. I think it’s a crisis. If she doesn’t right the ship it will be a disaster. In politics it’s always later than you think. Advisors who told her voters would forget the email scandals probably say this too will pass. If so, she should fire them.

Leaders as progressive as Howard Dean and Barney Frank urge Democrats to circle the wagons and spare the party the bloodshed of a real contest, but this party needs to get its blood moving. Clinton needs a real challenge and a real debate, not just a sparring partner; not some palooka to dance her around the ring for a couple of rounds, but a real fighter. She needs the debate. We all do. But who will bring it?

There’s no one out there, and veteran reporter Michael Tomasky offers some advice about all this:

It’s quite obvious how this Clinton campaign is going to be covered by the media. Most of the visible manifestations will be soap opera, those kinds of mannered, Dowdian questions of which the press never seems to tire: is she connecting, is she being “authentic,” is she acting too “ambitious,” is she wearing the right pantsuit, what’s up with her hair today, how is Bill behaving. There is, certainly, an extent to which questions like these are a legitimate part of the scrutiny of a presidential candidate, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Ben Carson, and I’ll ask them from time to time myself when they seem relevant. But somehow – for reasons that aren’t terribly mysterious – these questions always have been and now will be asked far more often of Clinton than of the others.

Underlying all that, invisible to the naked eye but always present, will be the element of Gotterdammerung that flows from the soap opera, which is to say: When the coverage is so intensely personality-focused as it will be with Clinton, it sets up a reality in which the media are just waiting for her to crack, to break; perched for the moment of downfall. I’m not saying it’s a conscious thing, or that the press will want her to fail for ideological reasons. It’s subtler than that.

In some ways, it’s really just about the narrative structures we’ve all learned and imbibed from television and movies: If the Clintons are a soap opera, coverage of them must by definition include stock soap-opera moments of tragedy and failure. Depending on how the cookie crumbles, it might also include the standard post-failure narrative arc of redemption and renewal, but that’s just a maybe. The other parts are definites.

So how does Clinton navigate these currents?

She should go back her successful 2000 campaign for Senate in New York:

We’ve already heard a few echoes of that race, when she launched her first “listening tour.” That happens to be the campaign I followed really closely, so I know a little about it…

What she did then was to ignore the soap opera to the extent possible and stick to the issues. Issues, issues, issues! But the issues were mostly kind of boring. How to get more airlines to fly to Rochester was surely important to Rochestarians? But it ain’t a question on which the fate of the republic turns. All this played to her advantage over time, because voters read the soap opera in the papers, but then when she showed up in Schenectady or wherever, what they saw was this woman, a little shorter (and thus less intimidating) than they’d imagined, speaking with great knowledge and seriousness of purpose about Medicaid funding formulas and the Northeast Dairy Compact.

She needs to do, I think, kind of the same thing now. Stick to the issues. Except for this – now, the issues aren’t boring. Now, the issues really matter, and we are at a point in history where, if she can win and manage to hold the White House until 2025, a good portion of the rightward drift in this country since 1980 can be reversed for the foreseeable future. Now is exactly the right time for boldness and creativity on wages and middle-class economic security.

It’s a huge opportunity for her to be a president of great consequence, to be the one who finally reversed the flow of the river, got it back moving in the direction it (mostly) did from 1945 to 1979. And there’s only one way to be that president.

Go big, Hillary.

She may be a careful person, having been burnt before, in 2008, but Tomasky is serious:

Go big on social questions, on which public sentiment more and more favors liberal positions on a range of issues. And go big on foreign policy because the world situation demands it. She’s a little to Obama’s right? Fine. But she is not a neocon – that’s a misreading – and she needs to stand up to them and remind voters how much of the current world mess the neocons made.

But most of all she needs to go big on economic questions. The great issues of our time are wage stagnation and middle-class anxiety. …

It’s morally indefensible and economically unsustainable. And everything is teed up for her to be dramatic here. On the Democratic side of the spectrum, it’s not only that Elizabeth Warren has helped put these issues front and center; it’s also that figures like Larry Summers, in the past identified with more centrist positions, had embraced some populist policies of late. It’s also interesting that even Republicans are talking about wage stagnation now. Of course, they’re doing it only because it’s a handy club to whack Obama with – they’ll talk about wage stagnation under Obama, in other words, but not since 1979, which is the reality, because mentioning that would imply a criticism of the sainted Reagan. So they won’t go there. Clinton can.

After all, history is on her side:

The only brief time since 1979 that we’ve had strong wage growth at all income levels was in the late 1990s under Bill Clinton (in fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, wage growth then was strongest for the bottom 40 percent). And by the way, I salivate to see her go up against Jeb Bush on this front: Median household income grew nearly 11 percent under Bill Clinton. Under both Bush presidents, when adjusted for inflation, the median household income shrank; that’s right – shrank.

And this is important: She needs to be clear that she doesn’t want to address the wage problem because of fairness. Fairness is nice. It works with liberals. But it doesn’t work so well with swing voters. She wants to address the wage problem because of growth – inequality is bad for economic growth. Evidence on this point is accumulating, and establishing that link is crucial to the process of persuading voters beyond the base that the Democratic concern with wages isn’t just about fairness, which sounds to a lot of people like “uh-oh, more taxes for me” – raising median wages is a better way than trickle-down economics to grow the economy.

Now is exactly the right time for boldness and creativity on wages and middle-class economic security. More and more workers aren’t employees anymore; they’re contractors. What can be done for them, to ensure they have guarantees of sick days, vacation days? What about student debt and the cost of higher education? It can be curbed; there are ideas out there, they’re just not in the political bloodstream yet in a meaningful way. She can put them there.

And what the hell, go out there and make some enemies:

If one characteristic has marked her as a politician, it’s been her preternatural caution. Ditch it. Take some chances. I wrote last summer that she should embrace paid family and medical leave. I feel it more strongly now. Conservatives will scream nanny state. Wall Street and some parts (though not all parts) of corporate America will say she wants to kill business. Good. Let ’em. Voters will love it. That one issue alone would send a fantastic signal that she’s on the middle class’ side and is willing to take on some big-money interests.

Who is this Hillary Clinton of which he speaks? Michael Tomasky may be imagining an alternative universe, while the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne prefers actual history. Dionne argues that Hillary Clinton is modeling this campaign after the 1988 campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush:

It would help a great deal, of course, if events also flowed her way, as they did for Bush 41. In 1988, gross domestic product grew by 4.2 percent. There’s nothing like rapid growth to incline voters toward keeping the same crowd in power. Relations with the Soviet Union were warming. That helped Bush Sr., too.

But President Ronald Reagan and his vice president also made an arrangement that was vital for the GOP’s success. By the end of the Reagan presidency, the country was not prepared to take the status quo again without some alterations and embellishments. Voters had signaled their desire for something different in the 1986 midterm elections by handing the Senate back to the Democrats after six years of Republican control.

Voters never seem to vote for new a president of the same party, after eight years of those guys running things, but they did in 1988, because Jeb’s father added sweeteners, with Reagan’s approval:

He promised that he would be both an “education president” and an “environmental president,” neatly stamping himself with the new and improved label. Both issues appealed to middle-of-the-road swing voters, many of whom had voted for Reagan but were not hard-core Reaganites.

The key was the Reagan White House’s complicity in Bush’s partial distancing of himself from the Gipper’s legacy. Reagan and his lieutenants were happy to give him some running room because they knew that a Republican victory in 1988 was the surest way to ratify the conservative legacy of the 1980s.

And Bush organized a brutal campaign against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee… around issues connected to race, crime and patriotism. Bush identified the then-Massachusetts governor with the aspects of liberalism that voters had rejected before. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, saw how important white working-class voters would be. They will be significant again in 2016.

It’s time to go there again, without the racist dog-whistles. The trick is to hug your party’s hero of the last eight years, but as one who is simply moving on:

She must stay close enough to Obama – and he to her – to rally the large Obama base that will get her most of the way toward a majority. Clinton can’t expect to generate the same enthusiasm Obama did among the young, particularly younger African Americans. But she is likely to get most of them to the polls and supplement their votes with new energy among women. What she cannot afford are signs of awkwardness in her relations with Obama.

But a strategic distance is not the same as estrangement, as long as it’s worked out in advance. David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime adviser, has noted that voters are always looking for the corrective to whatever they didn’t like in the previous administration. Clinton will present herself as both a realist when it comes to the intransigence of the Republican Party – it took Obama time to acknowledge this – but also as someone with a history of working with Republicans. It will be an intricate two-step. “Tough enough to end polarization” may seem like an odd slogan, but something like it will be at the heart of her appeal.

And she will have to go both to Obama’s left and right. Clinton needs to run hard against economic inequality, pledging to get done the things Obama couldn’t on issues including family leave, pre-K and higher education. She will have to be strong on expanding the bargaining power of the lower-paid. Trade will be the tricky issue here.

And then there is what the Republicans say we should all hate about the last eight years:

She cannot break with Obama’s broad direction on foreign policy, but she can signal a personal toughness (that word again) to reassure voters who are somewhat more hawkish than the president. He and she will have to find a way to orchestrate this, and it won’t be easy. The Iran negotiations will be the first, very challenging test.

But if things get dicey, the Republican right will prove to be her best ally. She will ask repeatedly: Does the country really want to give control of both the White House and Congress to a bunch of right-wing ideologues whom most voters mistrust? The elder Bush found that there was one more campaign to run against liberalism. Clinton is ahead in the polls because the country is not looking for a rendezvous with today’s brand of conservatism.

She can pull a Bush. Clinton can win. At least that’s the idea. And that was Sunday’s diversion, if you don’t like golf.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Once More with Feeling

  1. Rick says:

    I heard somebody from Bloomberg on CBS this morning observe that Hillary’s campaign seems to be bypassing the term “middle class” in favor of “everyday Americans”. Apparently “middle class”, according to this guy, connotes “people in trouble”, which I guess is not how voters like to think of themselves. Besides, he said, nobody knows who you mean when you talk about the middle class, since everybody thinks they’re in it.

    And then there’s Michael Tomasky’s advice for Hillary Clinton:

    She needs to be clear that she doesn’t want to address the wage problem because of fairness. Fairness is nice. It works with liberals. But it doesn’t work so well with swing voters. She wants to address the wage problem because of growth – inequality is bad for economic growth. Evidence on this point is accumulating, and establishing that link is crucial to the process of persuading voters beyond the base that the Democratic concern with wages isn’t just about fairness, which sounds to a lot of people like “uh-oh, more taxes for me” – raising median wages is a better way than trickle-down economics to grow the economy.

    Hey, I’ve been saying something like that, for years! And whether or not it will actually work as a campaign strategy, I agree that she needs to try it, just because it’s true.

    Fairness may sound like a worthwhile value to argue from, but only if you’re a liberal. Conservatives — and independents, many of whom are conservatives trying to disguise themselves as mere innocent bystanders — see “fairness” as an argument used by squishes who aren’t tough enough to deal with the real world. I suspect that these people are more open than most to accept the idea that the word “inequality” is just some liberal weapon of “class warfare”, but they have to somehow be made to see inequality as something that is harmful to the economy itself, and therefore to the health of the country at large.

    But I would word this slight differently than Tomasky:

    While he says “inequality is bad for economic growth”, I would go further, arguing that “inequality knocks the whole economic system out of balance, hurting everyone from rich to poor”, which makes it something of concern to everybody, not just the so-called tree-huggers.

    And while I usually agree with E. J. Dionne, I think he may be repeating an Obama mistake here:

    “Tough enough to end polarization” may seem like an odd slogan, but something like it will be at the heart of her appeal.

    Obama never should have left the impression that he, maybe by setting the example of being a reasonable guy to work with, would end partisan rancor in Washington, since that just made it easy for the Republicans, by just not working with him, to make a liar out of him.

    Maybe the most Hillary can do is signal that, having seen her predecessor take all those sucker punches for the first few years, she will hit the ground having already learned that lesson. Still, she should be careful how she phrases this, as she probably shouldn’t emphasize that she’s got the toughness to stand up to those nasty Republicans, since there are probably those who will see this as arrogance and then vote for the other guy, just to watch him put her in her place.

    But I suppose that, if she wins, it will be interesting to see if the Republicans repeat the promise they made about Obama, which was to make it job number one to make her a “one term president”.

    Rick

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