Hillary Clinton joins the race for president today. If you believe the leaks from her staff, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, she’ll do it in a video released at noon as she herself flies high above the nation in a chartered plane. She and her top advisors, all smart people, must think it’s a good idea. It doesn’t feel like one.
For months Clinton has run a front-porch campaign — if by porch you mean Boo Radley’s. Getting her outdoors is hard enough; when she does get out it’s often to give paid speeches to people who look just like her: educated, prosperous and privileged. Needing desperately to connect with the broader public, she opts for the virtual reality of a pre-taped video delivered via social media. Go figure.
Her leakers say she’ll head out on a listening tour like the one that kicked off her first Senate race. They say listening to real people talk about real stuff will make her seem more real. This too may be a good idea, but it made more sense when she was a rookie candidate seeking a lesser office in a state she barely knew. Running for president is different. So are the times. Voters are more desperate now, and in a far worse mood. If you invite their questions, you’d better have some answers. I’ll return to this point shortly.
Her leakers say she’ll avoid big events, rallies, stadiums, that sort of thing. This is about 2008, when she and her tone-deaf team seemed to be planning a coronation. This time they say she doesn’t want to come off as quite so presumptuous. Yet next week she keynotes a ‘Global Women’s Summit’ cohosted by Tina Brown and the New York Times, at which “world leaders, industry icons, movie stars and CEOs convene with artists, rebels, peacemakers and activists to tell their stories and share their plans of action.” Orchestra seats go for $300.
Clinton personifies the meritocracy that to an angry middle class looks increasingly like just another privileged caste. It’s the anger captured best by the old ‘Die Yuppie Scum’ posters and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s on the rise. Republicans love to paint Democrats as elitists. It’s how the first two Bushes took out Dukakis, Gore and Kerry — and how Jeb plans to take out Hillary. When she says she and Bill were broke when they left the White House; when she sets her own email rules and says it was only for her own convenience; when she hangs out with the Davos, Wall Street or Hollywood crowds, she makes herself a more inviting target.
During its long ramp-up, Democrats searched for signs that this Clinton campaign would be better than the last, a seething cauldron of rivalries and resentments run by D.C. consultants who made their real livings from corporate clients. Things do look better at the top. The chief of staff is John Podesta, a man whose core competency is competency. Pollster Joel Benenson is a huge step up from the fiercely anti-populist Mark Penn.
Still, the leaks are a bad sign. All campaigns fall prey to them and it’s sometimes a good thing for the First Amendment that they do. All White House staffs leak to settle scores or advance agendas and careers. Bill Clinton’s White House added a new wrinkle — leaks that elevated the leaker at Clinton’s expense. Often the leaker wanted only to prove his insider status and savvy; the result was to frame everything Clinton did as political even before he did it. Every modern president polled as much as Clinton but none was so scorned for it. Leakers had a lot to do with that.
All political reportage is full of insider tales about how every link of sausage is made. When House Democrats resumed their push for a minimum wage hike, staff framed the initiative not as sound policy but as clever politics. Even if authorized, nearly all such leaks harm the principle. On Friday, Clinton’s campaign let slip its aim to raise $2.5 billion; maybe that’s not the best way to say hello to a struggling middle class. Someone gabbed about the message of Hillary’s planned sit downs with average families, a sure fire way to make the families look and feel like props — and to make the whole, hollow exercise look and feel like a hollow exercise.
There are three problems that go far deeper than Hillary’s image or her campaign’s operations. Each is endemic to our current politics; all are so deeply connected as to be inseparable. You already know them. The first is how they raise their money. The second is how they craft their message. The third pertains to policy.
To get the money they think they need candidates who crook the knee to moneyed interests. They spend vast sums on polls, focus groups and data mining to find out what messages to send and to whom, and vaster sums to send them. The need to serve their donors keeps them from solving real problems. With so little to show for their service, they must rely even more on paid propaganda. The emptier their ads, the more of them they need.
The first thing to know about this system is how well it works for Republicans, most of whom would back the status quo with or without the money. Since they can’t afford to be too honest about policy anyway, consultants’ metaphors and themes suit them fine, as do the strict limitations of texts, tweets and ads.
The opposite is true for Democrats. When they truckle to the status quo, they break sacred vows. Their base feels most betrayed ,but everyone notices and no one likes what they see. Convinced by their consultants that politics is all about metaphors and emotion, they treat issues as landmines and do everything possible to avoid stepping on one. They skip real debates to pursue what Obama consigliere David Axelrod calls ‘the politics of biography.’ Trading real reform for public policy vaporware, they lose all sense of purpose — and eventually stop making sense.
On Friday, Clinton’s campaign began the quick, quiet buildup to her Sunday announcement by placing a new epilogue to her last memoir in the Huffington Post. It’s mostly about how being a grandmother gives her new energy and insight. At the end of the piece she says it also inspires her to work hard so every child has as good a chance in life as her new granddaughter has. Her recent speeches, even those her leakers tout as campaign previews, say little more than that.
Barring a Jeremiah Wright-level crisis, a presidential candidate gets just two or three chances to make her case to a big audience. Her announcement is often her best shot. That Hillary passed on hers is unsettling. If she thinks she doesn’t have to make her case real soon she’s wrong. If she thinks she can get by on the sort of mush Democratic consultants push on clients she’s finished. On Thursday the Q poll released three surveys. In two states, she now trails Rand Paul. In all three a plurality or majority said she is ‘not honest or trustworthy.’ You can bet the leak about her $2.5 billion campaign will push those negatives up a notch.
Clinton seems as disconnected from the public mood now as she did in 2008. I think it’s a crisis. If she doesn’t right the ship it will be a disaster. In politics it’s always later than you think. Advisors who told her voters would forget the email scandals probably say this too will pass. If so, she should fire them.
Leaders as progressive as Howard Dean and Barney Frank urge Democrats to circle the wagons and spare the party the bloodshed of a real contest, but this party needs to get its blood moving. Clinton needs a real challenge and a real debate, not just a sparring partner; not some palooka to dance her around the ring for a couple of rounds, but a real fighter. She needs the debate. We all do. But who will bring it?
Underdogs always need to get an early start, so it’s surprising that Clinton beat all of her prospective primary opponents into the race. Some seem to be auditioning for the second spot on her ticket. Others may not make the race. If no champion emerges, progressives must mount their own debate and relearn some of the skills they applied so successfully back in the days before everybody had a PAC.
The Democrats’ third problem is policy. They don’t really have clear policies to deal with our biggest problems. It’s why Hillary won’t have the answers those Iowa families seek and why so few Democrats do. It’s why we need a real debate. It is Clinton’s misfortune to find herself master of a dying system.
If she raises all that money it will ruin her. Fundraising nearly ruined her husband in 1996. He didn’t need all the money he raised then and God knows she doesn’t need all the money she wants to raise now. Even if raising the money doesn’t land her in hot water, if she spends it the way most Democrats do, that will ruin her.
Like Bill Clinton’s 1992 race, this election is about the economy. But this one’s about how to reform the economy, not just jumpstart it. Our political system isn’t set up to debate whether or not our economic system needs real reform. It will take a very different kind of politics, and leader, to spark that debate. We’ll soon know whether anyone is ready, willing and able to fight.
(Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.)