opinion

‘What Happened’

How Hillary Clinton Embodies the Democrats’ Unfair but Very Real Problem

Clinton, whose new book is out today, talked incessantly about people’s struggles but still was easy to caricature as remote. This is the puzzle the Democrats need to solve.

So Hillary Clinton’s book is coming out today, which means that starting today—actually, it started last week, when some excerpts leaked—we’re going to be treated to a battalion of experts explaining why, once again, she’s Doing It Wrong.

Because that’s how it goes. Throughout her time in the public eye, going back to 1992, whether she was actually doing it wrong or not, the mainstream press has generally decided that she was Doing It Wrong. There is no more reason to think this will change than there is to think that the right-media will ever stop trying to get her indicted for something, which, yes, is still going on and will be going on until the day she dies and possibly after.

This column isn’t about all that. I will read the book, and I hope it’s more interesting than her previous two. If she throws a few punches here, on literary grounds if nothing else, it’s fine by me.

What I want to do here is take the occasion of this book’s publication to discuss a problem the Democrats face and that Clinton represented and embodied, and that in my experience a lot of liberals have trouble acknowledging and talking about. The Democrats do have a huge problem—largely an unfair one, but real and huge nonetheless—with how they present themselves to the middle and working classes.

Since Clinton lost, critics have loved saying that she didn’t talk enough about the economic concerns of regular people, and that’s why she lost.

Nonsense. That’s about all she talked about. Her words may not have been just the right words. The poetry may have been on the wooden side. She may have done the talking in some of the wrong places—Philadelphia instead of Oshkosh or whatever. But she talked endlessly about all that.

And, unlike her opponent, she had specific and mostly well thought-out plans that were designed to ease these folks’ burdens, from child care to student loans to reinvestment in struggling parts of the country to you name it. Donald Trump had and still has no such plans, but of course he said two or three big boisterous things, and so he became the one who was “connecting.”

So, we have what may be the central paradox the Democrats face today: They’re the party that supports the ideas and policies that would actually improve struggling people’s lives, but because of the way the right plays cultural politics, and because the press eats that mess up, they’re the party that is continually painted—by Republicans, and by huge chunks of the mainstream press—as being remote from those people.

This credibility deficit isn’t fair. It’s worse than unfair. It’s superficial, it’s ridiculous, it’s crazy. The media don’t actually ask citizens to listen to politicians’ words anymore. The campaign sound bite famously went from 43 seconds in 1968 to nine seconds by 1988. Now it’s surely half that (except when it came to Trump, whom the cable nets gave hours of free air time, which was another problem). People are now reading tweets and Facebook posts instead of news stories.

In such a hothouse, voters tend even more to make snap judgments about candidates based on how they look, sound, gesture. And the press does exactly the same thing. And I think a lot of the press decided that Hillary Clinton wasn’t very good at connecting with struggling Americans because she just didn’t look like she was good at it.

Yes, she carried other baggage: Wall Street, the speeches. But this thing I’m describing happens to other Democrats, too. Nancy Pelosi would be your prime second example. Say, now what do those two have in common? Yep, they’re women. The press is almost always going to judge men less harshly than women on this front; and, let’s face it, white men less harshly than black men.

Pelosi has other problems—notably, that she’s from San Francisco. If she were Nancy Pelosi from Baltimore, her hometown, I bet the phrase “Pelosi Democrats” wouldn’t carry half the sting it does.

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But it does, in fact, carry a sting, that phrase. And this is where liberals often won’t confront a reality—an unfortunate and unfair reality, but a reality all the same. It’s not that they are in truth out of touch. But they’re easy to caricature as out of touch to vast stretches of the country.

They have to accept that this is how it is. They simply have to do better than Hillary’s 487 counties. They have to adjust the image the country has of who they are. And no, I’m not saying they need to hand the party back to only white men. True, some more white men wouldn’t hurt, especially a few with Southern accents.

But this is not about race and gender. It’s about other kinds of diversity. They need more veterans. A lot more veterans. By far the greatest ad I’ve seen so far for a 2018 candidate is by a former Marine lieutenant colonel-fighter pilot who’s challenging the incumbent Republican congressman in a Kentucky House district. Her name is Amy McGrath.

They need more rural people, which doesn’t just mean white people. Plenty of African Americans live in rural America too, and not just in the South. They need more men and women of the cloth. They need more small business people. They need more big business people. Some of them are Democrats. The party should go find them. Anything that will lessen the Republicans’ and the media’s ability to stereotype them, they need to do.

Clinton made mistakes. But she got a raw deal, too. My point is that nearly any Democrat is going to get that same raw deal in 2020 unless the party has expanded the image of what and who it is and represents. It can’t be just a party of educators and lawyers and civil servants and a few other categories whose members are concentrated in a few cities and states.

It did sometimes sound as if Clinton could connect well with those folks, but not beyond them. A Democrat who can is what the party needs.