Delegates supporting Hillary Clinton at the DNC in Philadelphia, July 2016. Credit: Carolyn Kaster; AP/PA. All rights reserved.
“For things to stay the same, things need to change” - The Leopard
“The job of the conservative is to stand athwart history and yell ‘stop!’” - William Buckley
It is one of the ironies of American politics that the conservatives in the Republican Party often come across as radical insurgents, while self-styled progressives in the Democratic Party tend to sound pretty conservative. The Jacobins in the Republican Party want to make the country great again by changing almost everything about it, while the Democrats warn of recklessness and vandalism. But ‘more of the same’ could prove to be a fatal message for Hillary Clinton if she wants to defeat Donald Trump.
Republicans talk a big game. They threaten to drown government in the bathtub, prove their masculinity with outrageously trite soundbites about bombing enemies they barely understand, and try to confront the logic of basic addition by proposing smaller deficits while giving revenue away through huge tax breaks to those who need them least. Whether it comes to intervening militarily in foreign countries, continuing a culture war that has long been lost, or allowing corporate America to regulate Washington (rather than vice versa), the Republicans are not interested in conserving.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are dead set on defending achievements won long ago. Republicans try to dismantle Medicare through private provision (while insisting that payments for clinically less-than-useful interventions continue be funded by the taxpayer), as they tried to privatize Social Security under President George W. Bush, and keep threatening to further erode welfare. Democrats promise to defend the legacies of FDR and LBJ. They cry in unison: “Don’t let the Republicans throw grandma off the cliff!”
But is that enough? Is pointing out the absurdity of ‘President Trump’ all that is required?
It makes sense for Democrats to claim some credit for real achievements over the past last eight years. Despite a cash injection too small to generate ‘terminal velocity’, the Obama stimulus is widely regarded by economists as having saved an economy that was on the brink of collapse. Obama’s mantra of “don’t do stupid shit” was a welcome change from Bush’s buccaneering neocons who sought to bring democracy but brought chaos. And while Obamacare was diluted by a lack of a public option, and by a Supreme Court decision to allow states to leave millions of the very poor uncovered, it was a hard-fought and welcome incremental advance towards universal healthcare. The American public seems to agree, if the President’s approval ratings reflect how the public sees his legacy. Yet, the same pollsters who chart President Obama’s popularity also warn of a public mood that is eager for more change. The difference between those who think America is on the right track and those who think it’s heading in the wrong direction is stark and unambiguous. Every time she could zig towards change, she zags towards more of the same.
When Bill Clinton ran against George H.W. Bush, the latter admitted that he did not possess "the vision thing". The first President Bush was a consummate insider: a faithful servant to a popular predecessor, he was forged in high-level government jobs such as head of the CIA, and possessed extensive foreign policy experience. Bill Clinton warned that people were hurting. That he understood the poor, white working class. And he wasn’t shy about using racial distrust to show he understood grievances around crime and public disorder. While George H.W. Bush was reassuringly boring in his personal life, Bill Clinton was known for his unconventional private shenanigans. But Bill Clinton felt your economic pain and talked tough. Globalization, fast-paced economic change, and trade deals made a public fearful and insecure. People respected Bush, but they voted Clinton.
Hillary Clinton was a close political advisor to her husband, but she runs the risk of falling prey to the same vulnerabilities that her husband used to defeat President Bush. Hillary Clinton desperately needs to locate her “vision thing”.
Two years ago, few would have predicted that Britain would leave the European Union, or that a septuagenarian Vermont socialist would come close to beating the Clinton machine, or that a buffoonish orange demagogue with hair as gold and chintzy as the escalators in his luxury towers would win the Republican nomination. But we live in extraordinary times. For all of this, Hillary Clinton seems to be running a campaign that reflects her shortcomings as a candidate: effective and ruthless but tin-eared and conventional. Any of these political shocks could serve as a canary in the coalmine but the proximity and consistency of these political long-shots leaves no doubt to the public mood. Each debate saw 'common sense' and 'realism' lose out to 'taking our country back' and promises to address earnestly-held grievances. Hillary is hoping that doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result is no longer the definition of insanity.
When I ask insiders about Hillary’s message of change, I get blank stares. Sanders campaigned on regulating Wall Street, making college affordable, and ending super PACs. Whatever the merits of his policies, his message was clear. Hillary spent most of the primaries pouring cold water on Sanders’ plans, but Bernie was a whisker from winning Iowa as well as New Hampshire and changing the course of a nomination curated for Clinton’s benefit by party bigwigs. Hillary’s backers seem to have seen this as a victory rather than narrowly avoiding defeat. A Hillary campaign that only turns out her supporters at low tide could still be beaten by a Trump campaign that guarantees a rising tide of anger and frustration.
There have been chances to adopt a different message: Hillary could have launched her election campaign by moving away from #ImWithHer to focusing on economic justice. She could have found a topic of her own to champion: from a national investment bank to helping grow small business. But the biggest hinge point was the selection of her running mate: she could have chosen a historic two-woman ticket with Elizabeth Warren, known for being tough on banks and predatory lenders, and with a personal experience of poverty (as a single mom, she lived in her own car with her child). She could have said “Thank you, President Obama, but now we are going to forge a new path”. Instead she picked a likable but boring white man from a swing state. Boring, yet calculating. Every time she could zig towards change, she zags towards more of the same.
The hardest lesson for political pundits to learn is that people don’t care nearly as much about politics as we do. Far from obsessing over every news cycle, gaffe, or policy paper, most people are busy with their daily lives. For many, the presidential election does not begin until after Labour Day. Hillary’s convention speech is a chance to grab five minutes with swing voters and tell them that she understands how scared they are. How anxious most are. And how she has a plan to change things radically for the better. She can show she understands them and has a vision for what a healthier, safer, more prosperous American would look like. What she can’t afford to do is to simply talk about herself and argue that they’ve never had it so good. The message has not worked in this kind of febrile political climate since Marie Antoinette.
No think piece in recent times could end without mentioning ‘elites’. So much of the reaction to Hillary can be explained by vulgar Marxism: if you live in a city, are comfortable with change and multiculturalism, and are better off, Hillary Clinton can seem like an ideal candidate. She’s battle-tested, smart, and has considerable experience. To them, opposition to Hillary seems somehow juvenile at best or sexist at worst. However, the accusations of sexism and utopianism against 'Bernie Bros' seemed to many both ill-founded and a way to shut down debate. It provoked some Bernie supporters to harden their positions rather than soften them (even if most are rallying behind Hillary, albeit reluctantly). It smacked of the condescension of the Remain campaign in the UK's referendum on membership of the European Union, which tried to convince Leave voters to switch their vote by accusing them of racism and innumeracy. Reaching out to people tempted to chance ‘Trump Change’ will work better than telling them to ‘grow up’ or levelling dark insinuations about their personal failings.
But Trump’s ability to repel voters might match Hillary’s and more. Hillary’s biggest asset is her opponent. Her second biggest asset is demographic change that allows a coalition to be built that can outnumber those left behind by rapid cultural and economic change. But a Hillary campaign that only turns out her supporters in low numbers could still be beaten by a Trump campaign, which guarantees a rising tide of anger and frustration. Trump can’t win without record numbers of angry white men. Hillary has a chance on Thursday night to show that she understands their pain like her husband does and has an economic plan to give them dignity and peace of mind. Hillary, it’s time to zig this time. More of the same won’t cut it.