In Mario Cuomo's famous dictum, politicians "campaign in poetry and govern in prose."
While Hillary Clinton has effectively secured her party's nomination, her primary campaign has been difficult and distinctly un-poetic. By personality and inclination, Clinton is prose. Which, fortuitously or not, makes her a fit for the temper of these fractious times, where patience, pragmatism and a mastery of policy count for more than soaring rhetoric and promises which cannot be kept.
Our politics is trench warfare. The Republicans are dug in, protected by a bulwark of gerrymandering and demographics which means that, out of 435 congressional districts, all but 35 or so are electorally impregnable. So, too, are roughly 45 red state senators -- not enough to make a majority, but sufficient to sustain a filibuster. And the machinery of polarization -- including a media which tells right-wing voters what they want to hear -- blocks transformational change.
We may not like it. But our quarrel is not merely with our current noxious politics, but with the founding fathers who, fearful of popular excesses, gave us political institutions ideal for dividing power and resisting change. Unwittingly, they embedded within our Constitution a system which is now exploited by a GOP mired in stasis and self-interest. The political front moves, if at all, by inches instead of miles.
In this environment things like single-payer health care are casualties of war. The question is how to carve out territory where progress, however incremental, is meaningful and lasting.
Take Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Imperfect and incomplete as it may be, Obamacare has delivered health insurance to about 20 million Americans, with the greatest benefit to the poor, minorities and struggling workers. Not only is this important -- in the Hobbesian world of our politics, it was optimal.
From the day he entered office, Obama had to claw for every inch of political turf in the face of unrelieved opposition to any legislation he offered. Often, he had to stretch the limits of his executive authority to achieve anything at all.
In short, we elected a man who campaigned in poetry, and found that prose was writ in mud and paid for in partisan bloodshed. One doubts that, today, he would campaign quite as he did in 2008 -- indeed, he did not do so in 2012. Now Hillary Clinton is campaigning as she must govern -- as a combatant, not an innocent, whose greatest weapon will sometimes be a veto.
She understands that progress in health care, infrastructure, financial regulation, tax reform, the environment, and limiting money in politics can only come through a mastery of detail and a keen sense of the potential, and limits, of presidential power. She is coming to the job prepared.
As a politician, she is like that congenital A student we all knew in high school -- steeped in policy, enthralled by detail, and conscientious to a fault. Give her something to read, and she will read it and remember. When it comes to knowing her job, Hillary Clinton does not believe in faking it.
She has specific plans to improve the lot of embattled Americans, including women and their families. She has a well-conceived program to regulate the financial sector -- a priority she spelled out a year before the crash of 2008. Indeed, there is no area of pressing need where she is not stocked with proposals which, mercifully, have an actual chance of moving forward.
Importantly, her agenda can be paid for without busting the budget, primarily by increasing taxes on the wealthy. One can quarrel with the details: certainly, it is easy to imagine more sweeping and ideal solutions than some which she proposes -- indeed, Bernie Sanders often does.
What is impossible to imagine is passing them. And there is no reasonable doubt that a Clinton presidency will focus on building a fairer and more inclusive society. These things account, at least in part, for Clinton's decisive lead in the primary vote and pledged delegates: critically, Clinton enjoys broader support among Democrats than does Sanders -- including from minorities who will be critical in November.
Then there is national security, an area where she must combat Donald Trump's empty bluster.To this task Clinton brings a sophisticated grasp of diplomacy, military strategy and counter-terrorism.
To be sure, the Iraq vote was a mistake that Trump, as has Sanders, will make her reckon with -- it helped lead to a foreign policy disaster, and it will not suffice to say that she had lots of company. And, for some, Clinton is too inclined to interventions in the Middle East which, inevitably, have as many unintended consequences as those which we intend -- assuming, of course, that we can realize even those.
But Iraq was 14 years ago. And it is too easy to second-guess more recent decisions in a region where both action and inaction can be equally problematic -- and which ISIS uses as a launching pad for terrorism and terrorists. Over time, Hillary Clinton has acquired the knowledge to be president in a dangerous and ever-shifting global environment.
She has thought about this environment in detail and with care. Foreign leaders respect her. She is prepared to deal with issues as disparate as climate change, cyber warfare, and international drug cartels. Her plan for combating ISIS is thorough and considered. She understands counter-terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation -- including nuclear terrorism. She has the sophistication to maintain and build alliances, but also to understand their limits.
During their primary contest, Bernie Sanders has cited Iraq as proof that his judgment is superior, and that experience alone is not enough. But the latter truism is no substitute for an ongoing absorption in the complications of a complex world. That was never a priority for Sanders and, when it comes to picking a president, this matters. And being right on a single vote in 2002, however critical, is no guarantee of mastery of difficult issues in, say, 2018.
In any event, the alternative to Clinton in November is not Sanders, but the ignorant, xenophobic, chronically offensive, Putin-loving moron Donald Trump. She is as fit to be president as Trump is not. The gap is daunting -- the wrong result would be dangerous to America and the world. But to win Clinton must address her own weaknesses as a candidate, reflected in uncomfortably high negatives, and rooted in difficulties which cannot be wished away.
Some derive from 25 years of being pounded with lies, distortions and half-truths, rooted in a pervasive double standard. In a way, this Darwinian experience is oddly reassuring. Hillary Clinton is tough -- if she hasn't cracked by now, she never will.
But other problems are self-inflicted. In terms of credibility, the speeches on Wall Street cost her much more than she was paid, and her failure to perceive that suggests a certain tone deafness. Her reasons for not releasing the transcripts are so unpersuasive as to suggest discomfort with the speeches themselves. Similarly, the email problem has grown bigger with each shifting explanation.
Put simply, she does not excel at changing stories or admitting error. And, yes, Iraq truly is the gift that keeps on giving, especially when coupled with the suspicion that Clinton's positions are too often calibrated to suit the public mood.
The latter, of course, is commonplace. That's how candidates get elected, and the flipside is the tactical flexibility needed to get things done. But, in Clinton, the air of contrivance is exacerbated by the fact that she is not, as events have compelled her to admit, a natural. Too often she exudes caution and, at times, wariness -- understandable, to be sure, but unhelpful in conveying passion or authenticity.
All this feeds the perception, fair or not, that, in the immortal word of Kevin McCarthy, Clinton is "untrustable." There is irony here -- by any reasonable measure of truth telling, Clinton's assertions during the campaign are, relative to other candidates, accurate and grounded in fact. But the perception has hurt her nonetheless -- including among young women who have forgotten the hard and bitter fight which enabled a woman to run for president at all.
Another problem is that Clinton will need enthusiastic support from a Democratic electorate which is divided in a couple of different ways. One divide is between Clinton past -- as examples, the crime bill and welfare reform of the '90s -- and this Clinton in the very different present. Both Clintons are addressing this, and must continue to do so in a way that reaches progressives, minorities and the young: the alternative, after all, is not some beau ideal, but Donald Trump.
The second divide is between the pragmatic governing philosophy of Hillary Clinton, and the idealistic all or nothing populism of Bernie Sanders. Practicality is harder to sell than visionary phrases, and reality is not always a place where all voters want to live.
She cannot make these problems go away. What she can do is continue to remind voters that a president owes them reality, not fantasy -- a critique even more apt for Trump than for Sanders. And then -- through command, specifics and an added dollop of passion -- persuade the majority of Americans to trust her as a president.
This is not the stretch that some might think it. In debate, she is smart, informed, unyielding and even compelling -- one can see her as our president in tough moments. That's a form of trust not easy to come by. And her mastery of policy will be a bracing contrast to Trump's abysmal ignorance. Part of her campaign must be focused on that -- relentlessly disqualifying Trump on the issues and, critically, as the unpredictable and unstable megalomaniac that he is.
A second element is convincing Americans that behind her programs is a deep desire to make their lives, and the country itself, better -- including a strong and persuasive indictment of the influence of big money in politics. She need not be Bill Clinton or Barack Obama -- or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders. What she does need -- and what many Americans still want from her -- is an animating vision of the better place she wants America to become.
Given her immersion in pressing issues from college on, by now this should not be all that hard. Clearly she is thinking about this; so are others who want her to be president. By email Sam Brown -- whose concern this has been since the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s -- sketches a platform which, while not meant to be definitive, suggests a template for uniting Democrats and reaching Americans at large.
The basic vision it serves is that only a country which values all its people can be vibrant and strong -- now and in the future. With a few additions, I venture it as a starting place:
"We believe that every student in America has the right to a debt free college education. Because the voice of every citizen should carry equal weight, we support a constitutional amendment to stem the influence of money in politics.
"We believe that every American has the right to quality healthcare regardless of their means. We believe in providing job retraining, education and support for Americans dislocated by the forces of globalization.
"We believe in a society where opportunity is not defined by wealth. We believe that every American should bear their fair share of paying for our defense, rebuilding our infrastructure, and providing opportunity and security for all.
"We believe in protecting the equal rights of every citizen, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. We believe in combating the scourge of gun violence through laws which protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens, while keeping guns away from demonstrably dangerous people who would use them to kill others.
"We believe that it is imperative to protect our environment and combat climate change. We believe in addressing the complex problems of immigration and providing a path to citizenship for those who wish to be good citizens. We reject scapegoating of any kind, whether it be of Mexicans, Muslims or those who wish to seek refuge from violence and oppression."
Is there any doubt that Hillary Clinton wants to lead that kind of country? Or that Donald Trump does not?
Her task is to make more Americans see her as that leader -- and to believe that our future is not a given, for good or ill, but a choice. If she succeeds, then she can bring this better country closer to reality.
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