One image from CNN’s Democratic town hall–style meeting Monday seems to encapsulate the party’s everlasting Hillary Clinton dilemma. It came when moderator Chris Cuomo made Hillary watch Bernie Sander’s magnificent Simon & Garfunkel–themed ad, “America.”
Hillary might well have reacted as the visibly frustrated Ted Cruz did when he was forced to limply applaud Donald Trump’s paean to 9/11 heroes. But Clinton’s far too good a candidate for that.
As the campaign spot that even Republicans are lauding rolled onscreen, an inset showed Clinton watching, stone-faced. She didn’t smile, not even toward the end, as the crowds in the spot grow larger, their cheers louder, and the anthem crescendos—that moment when most of us get goose bumps (some weep) over the flickering hope that the promise of America is still alive.
When the spot ended, Clinton said, flatly, “I think that’s great.” The Iowa audience laughed nervously. But then she smiled broadly, saying, “I think that’s fabulous! I loved it!” The audience applauded for real—she had loosened her grip and was riding the surge of emotion with them.
Then she got her bearings. “Look,” Hillary went on, “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. And we need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country. So, I applaud that. I love the feeling. I love the energy.” While she appreciated “what [Sanders] has done in this campaign,” she’d be the better president and commander in chief, because, she implied, inspiration is emotionally and artistically satisfying, but governing is like writing the fine print in a credit-card contract.
Campaigning in poetry and governing in prose is, of course, the bardic line coined by Chris Cuomo’s father, the late, former New York governor Mario Cuomo. In this campaign, it’s become shorthand for Bernie’s idealism versus Hillary’s pragmatism. She had used the same poetry/prose dichotomy in 2008 to warn Democrats against Obama.
But it’s always been a bit of a false dichotomy, which she must know. When asked her favorite president later in the town-hall meeting, Clinton chose not one of the two men she’s closest to—Bill or Barack—but Abraham Lincoln, the greatest poet ever to occupy the office. He kept the Union together through our deadliest war and (with caveats) freed the slaves, two objectives everyone said were impossible to achieve. And he did it, as Clinton herself noted, by inspiring “the better angels of our nature” through his brilliantly eloquent prose-poetry.
I’m not comparing Bernie to Abe (although if a President Sanders could eliminate oligarchy, he’d be in running). And Sanders is not quite a poet. But he breathes an idealism that the Democratic establishment dismisses at their peril. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, an Obama supporter who has switched allegiance from Hillary to Bernie, boiled it down by tweeting, “As a nation we cannot go from ‘yes we can’ 2 ‘no we can’t.’”
A “yes, we can, but only around the edges” attitude is why Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political ads have rarely inspired. “Neither of the Clintons could attempt to harness the sweet, nostalgic searching of a song like America without looking ridiculous,” as Alexander Zaitchik writes in The Guardian. “There’s a reason Bill’s 1992 campaign song was Fleetwood Mac’s soulless Me Generation anthem Don’t Stop.”
Clintonian ads (like the one touting her experience that Cuomo had Bernie watch) are mostly aimed at a middle that was disappearing when Bill was first elected and largely doesn’t exist anymore. Bill got his chops at a time when Reagan dominated the map, and he and the DLC worked out a marketing style of mee-tooism: I’m a progressive person, but I’m not going to threaten business. Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over, and sacrificed Sister Souljah, the Glass-Steagall Act, and welfare as we once knew it in order to find his third way—basically, in order to harvest liberal votes while accepting corporate money.
Now, more than 20 years and an Obama era later, Hillary is trying to find her way to back to being a progressive, but she’s doing so on tracks laid down by the Clinton machinery. She knows enough to try to hide the machine in the basement, but you can still hear it there, clanging, not singing.
It’s not that Hillary Clinton isn’t idealistic. She is. But it’s often drowned out by noise. One of her closing ads for Iowa follows her over the years championing the needs of children. I’m afraid, though, that the archival footage will, in the popular mind, highlight her changing hair styles as much as her honest passion to help children.
I wish Bernie would win and his political revolution would sweep the nation. I also wish Bernie were 10 years younger, and, yeah, had never called himself a socialist.
But Clinton is what we’ve got. We need to keep pushing her, doubting her, challenging her to reach inside herself to find a line of poetry or two.
We’ve all come to look for Hillary.