Saturday, May 21, 2016

Time for Hillary's Team to Craft a New Message

Some of the reasons why Bernie still lingers around winning the odd primary here and there, and dominating a  news cycle or two, is the difficulty Clinton has had so far articulating a winning message. One way to characterized the problem is whether after so many speeches, campaign rallies and interviews the difficulty anyone experiences in trying to sum up precisely what  Hillary’s candidacy is all about? Take her first major speech that launched her candidacy the one she gave on Roosevelt Island in New York back in June last year.  A speech that was far from off the cuff--one she had time to prepare and refine for a two years after she had resigned from Secretary of State back in February 2013. The speech’s central conceit  that there is a unifying bond that connects FDR with the other successful presidents, notably her husband and of course Barack Obama and that is “America’s basic bargain. If you do your part you ought to be able to get ahead. And when everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.” But also woven into the speech is her unique background as a problem solver and a compassionate believer in an inclusive society. But  what is noticeable is the  scant reference to the last eight years and the fact that eight years after the depression was supposedly fixed in which Wall Street bankers profited to the tune of $281 billion dollars, a majority of working Americans are still suffering. She nods her head to this in a fairly routine way,

“You worked extra shifts, took second jobs, postponed home repairs… you figured out how to make it work. And now people are beginning to think about their future again – going to college, starting a business, buying a house, finally being able to put away something for retirement.”

 It is not that Hillary cannot excite her audience or refrains from giving them red meat or is afraid of stoking a class war it is that the language she uses to describe their plight is so lifeless and abstract that it reeks of condescension.

She does not seem to be able to grasp that the Obama administration has to also account for why most middle class people feel squeezed and why in many US cities more African American youth stand more chance of going to prison than to college? Is it purely due to a poor economy that has not recovered from the great recession? Or that the economy is not working for all Americans the way it once did. In either case what has the Obama administration done to alleviate these trends?  One of the reasons that Bernie Sanders has resonated so well among young people is that he at least has found the language to describe the last eight years, used in his own campaign launch speech back in May last year.

“There is something profoundly wrong when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. There is something profoundly wrong when one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable.”

Bernie makes what happened to the American economy in the last eight years-- underlines the economic crises moral dimensions by focusing on the way the billionaire class has flourished during this period. He does not blame Obama but he does not want to run for his third term either as Clinton seems to want to do. Bernie wants fundamental reform of the system, starting with the repeal of Citizens United and campaign financing. What is Clinton's narrative?
If you parse her words carefully her Roosevelt Island speech --goes something like this--trust me I know I know you are all frustrated with a gridlocked dysfunctional Congress but I rather than Obama have the political skills to fix the mess. How else to interpret the following passage,

“Our political system is so paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction that most Americans have lost confidence that anything can actually get done. And they’ve lost trust in the ability of both government and Big Business to change course. Now, we can blame historic forces beyond our control for some of this, but the choices we’ve made as a nation, leaders and citizens alike, have also played a big role. Our next President must work with Congress and every other willing partner across our entire country. And I will do just that — to turn the tide so these currents start working for us more than against us. At our best, that’s what Americans do. We’re problem solvers, not deniers. We don’t hide from change, we harness it.”

So President Obama is not a problem solver?  Wasn't it rather the case that the GOP Congress in the second term refused to cooperate with the President? The question she does not answer is why given the obstructionism of the GOP should a Clinton administration be treated  any differently?  That is the central flaw in the message. Hillary wants us to see her as a transcendent political force that can somehow magically make the system work again and get the Republicans to behave more reasonably when it comes to their determination to continue to shower their rich backers with tax cuts.

How should she approach the challenge?  For a winning message in 2016 she must stop believing that simply having Bill join her as economic tsar will convince the 65% of the electorate that believe that the system is fundamentally unfair to support her in the swing states. The days of the Clinton magic if they ever existed are over for a variety of reasons--but mostly due to the cozying up of billionaires and hedge fund managers to the Clinton's various operations.  To win she will have to come clean and make public funding of elections as the Atlantic magazine argues "the first issue in her presidency, just as Johnson made passing the Civil Rights Act the first issue of his administration."  It will involve a difficult pivot --but one that she is fully capable of making--from successful power broker to acknowledging the system’s flaws that involve capture of the Congress by special interests most notably by Wall Street. She has no alternative but to  stop taking money from Wall Street and PACS and argue that she henceforth will like Bernie only be accepting donations from individuals. Only then can she find the political breathing space to craft a campaign that genuinely addresses the future and contrast that with the GOP's effort ever since Reagan was elected to turn the country into a plutocracy. She must help the electorate connect the dots between the GOP refusal to acknowledge climate change as a real threat to the planet’s survival by connecting the campaign contributions of Koch and Company to the Republican coffers. She must skewer their tax plans that are based on yet again another discredited idea that trickle down tax relief for the wealthy helps to create jobs. She needs to argue that the GOP are driven by a narrow right wing base that do not believe in government and would prefer to see government fail than work for ordinary people. She has to talk directly to the American people about her candidacy as a moral crusade for the future of the  country. Her candidacy must be less about her as a dynamic competent person (we all know that she is) and more about responding to the current generation who will be graduating from college deeply in debt and with fewer prospects of getting on the economic ladder to start families and to enter the middle class. To make this morally based politics resonate with the electorate she must accept the new political realities that are shaping 2016 as the year when Americans have had enough of status quo politics that no longer works to improve their lives.