About That Optimism Thing …

Watching the Democrats’ smoothly staged, potently scripted convention last week, voters could easily think that Hillary Clinton has this election in the bag.

The critiques of Donald Trump made devastatingly clear that he’s a preposterous, dangerous candidate for the presidency. The case for Clinton was compelling, and almost every party leader who mattered showed up to make it.

That included President Obama, who answered Trump’s shockingly gloomy vision of America with a stirring assurance that we have every reason to feel good. Clinton forcefully amplified that assessment. She peddled uplift, not anxiety.

But in 2016, is that the smarter sell? Are prettier words the better pitch?

They made for a more emotional, inspiring convention, so much so that many conservatives loudly grieved the way in which Democrats had appropriated the rousing patriotism and can­do American spirit that Republicans once owned. But Trump has surrendered optimism to Clinton at precisely the moment when it’s a degraded commodity, out of sync with the national mood. That’s surely why he let go of it so readily.

Clinton has many advantages in this race. I wouldn’t bet against her. I expect a significant bounce for her in post­-convention polls; an Ipsos/Reuters survey that was released on Friday, reflecting interviews spread out over the Democrats’ four days in Philadelphia, showed her five points ahead of Trump nationally among likely voters.

But she nonetheless faces possible troubles, and the potential mismatch of her message and the moment is a biggie. She has to exploit the opportunity of Trump’s excessive bleakness without coming across as the least bit complacent. That’s no easy feat but it’s a necessary one. The numbers don’t lie.

The Trouble for Hillary, Frank Bruni, NYT, today

For a few weeks last winter, into the spring, I kept getting ads on my computer screen from the Clinton campaign asking that we “Tell Trump that America’s already great.”  I don’t think I ever failed to groan or roll my eyes at that ad.  It was vintage Clinton campaign—a campaign that struck me as never failing to go for the most obvious cliché or, worse, clichéd misinformation about Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals and statements.

They—certainly including Clinton herself—came off as campaign software algorithms.  True to form.

It would have been fine to specify things about America that are great.  Michelle Obama did that beautifully in her convention speech when she said she wakes up every morning in a home built by slaves, and followed that sentence or preceded it, if I recall, with a statement that America is great.

Her point being that a source of America’s greatness is ability to change in critically important and progressive ways.

And certainly Clinton makes the point, repeatedly, that America’s greatness is so largely because of its ethnic and racial mix, so much of it the result of immigration.

But Clinton undermines her chance to win the election when she just grabs the obvious slogan or generic retort rather than identifying specific areas in which we’re no longer so great: the near-complete end to the long era of social mobility; the downward mobility of many people; the near-complete end to the long era of shared economic gains, and the consequent spiraling, gaping inequality of wealth and of income; and the conversion of the political system from a largely democratic one to an entirely plutocratic one.

The policies in the party’s platform address these.  I wish Clinton had mentioned those problems and then said, simply, that the party’s platform and additional ideas from her campaign and from Dems in Congress—Warren, Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin, Jeff Merkley, although she wouldn’t have had to name them—address these and do show the way toward further greatness.

Only just a week ago it appeared that Clinton’s decision to agree to a party platform incorporating so many of Bernie Sanders’ ideas, entirely or in part, was mainly lip service.  Her campaign was sending clear signals of this, telling reporters that she was more interested in courting moderate Republicans than Sanders supporters, and suggesting that consequently triangulation would be more prevalent than progressiveness.

Her selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate signaled this, or seemed to anyway, and probably did all the way back 10 days ago.  And clearly the courting of moderate Republicans was Bill Clinton’s desired direction; he himself is effectively one these days, after all.  And his convention speech, to the extent that it suggested a policy direction, seemed to me to suggest that one.

But to the surprise of, I think, most political journalists and most progressives she appears instead to have flipped the script.  It’s the view now of several high-profile commentators that Clinton at the last moment decided break from her norm and do the opposite of what she was expected to do because it’s what she always does: She offered lip service to the triangulators and a seemingly sincere promise to progressives that on much of domestic policy she’s now, genuinely, with them.

I think they may be right.

What if Clinton suddenly had an epiphany and realized three key things?  One is that it is not just the Sanders supporters who almost all will vote for her no matter what because the alternative is appalling; it also is moderate Republicans who are likely to do so, almost irrespective of her policy positions.  Another is that this is so of the big pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street donors, the ones who lean Democratic and usually donate to Dems, and the ones who are moderate corporate Republicans.

The third one is that most of the Sanders-induced platform planks aren’t actually radical, and are likely to spur a new wave social mobility, reduction of poverty, and a profoundly needed narrowing of wealth and income gaps.  Making America great again, in other words.

And the planks are popular.

What Clinton may suddenly have realized, even if her husband has not, is that the Trump nomination accomplishes something no one thought possible: It effectively repeals Citizens United, if only for this one presidential election cycle. Clinton had assumed that she could take for granted progressives’ votes, because as a practical matter progressives have nowhere else to go.  But since the regular moderate Democratic mega-donors, and moderate Republican ones too, similarly have nowhere else to go—the rabbit hole isn’t an inviting possibility—Clinton need not actually promise them anything, really, at all.

She may or may not feel liberated.  But I’m sort of guessing that once this sinks in fully, she’ll feel not only liberated but elated.  This is, after all, the strangest of election cycles.  And that would be a very welcome bit of strangeness.

Bruni’s column goes on to illustrate, quite evocatively, the conflicting signals of Clinton’s campaign.  His point, which he makes in spades, is that that itself needs to stop, because it’s self-defeating.  But he comes down, clearly, on the side of warning against a campaign of continuity-with-a-bit-of-incrementalism.

Campaigning as a true progressive and really meaning it and putting her heart into it would mean cutting the political umbilical cord from her husband and so many of the Clintons’ tight circle.  But the political and, here’s betting, the emotional reward to her would more than compensate for the loss of those crutches.  She could truly become her own person, if that truly is who she now is.  And oddly enough, she, and we, would have Donald Trump, of all people, to thank.

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