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Hillary Clinton and the audacity of political realism

In mid-2014, Noam Scheiber tracked down 10 former Iowa precinct captains for Barack Obama and asked whom they were supporting in 2016. The answer? Overwhelmingly, they were backing Hillary Clinton — the very candidate they had worked so hard to beat in 2008. Seven of the 10 ex-Obama organizers told him they'd become "enthusiastic" Clinton supporters, and an eighth said she was "slowly coming around."

The reassessment of Hillary Clinton was driven in part by the disillusionments of the Obama years. "Watching the system not change really made an impact on these people," Scheiber told me. "I don't think they want to get burned again."

In 2008, Obama promised to transform American politics. By 2014, it was clear he had failed. Even Obama admits his presidency hasn't fulfilled the hopes raised by his campaign. "A singular regret for me is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized, the language, the spirit has become meaner than when I came in," he told Politico.

If Obama was surprised by his presidency's failure to change the tenor of American politics, Clinton probably wasn't. She had always been clear that Obamaism was, in her view, shot through with naiveté about the nature of both American politics and Republican opposition.

"I could stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together, Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,'" Clinton said in 2008. "Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear."

As the 2016 election came closer into view, Clinton looked more dominant than she had even in 2008 — her poll numbers were higher, her challengers weaker, her endorsements more impressive. Liberals, chastened by the disappointments of the Obama years, seemed to recognize Clinton's prescience. "It may be that coming out of this period, where Congress has been so obstinate, so difficult to move ... that people are looking for someone whose central skill is how to work the power structure," Larry Grisolano, a top Obama pollster, told Scheiber.

Or maybe not.

With less than a week to go before Iowa, Bernie Sanders has pulled even with Clinton in the polls. He has done so without the money, institutional backing, and deep intraparty divisions over Iraq that powered Obama's 2008 win. It is, by any measure, an extraordinary political achievement. But it also clarifies the challenge Clinton faced in 2008, and faces this year.

How do you win as a political realist when the reality of politics is this grim?

There's never been anything audacious about hope

Obama Holds Campaign Rally In Dallas
Barack Obama, in happier, hope-ier times.
Photo by Rick Gershon/Getty Images

What Clinton is relearning in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire is that there's nothing audacious about hope. Hope is the one commodity every voter wants to buy. It's pragmatism that you can't sell.

And Clinton is a political pragmatist — maybe even a political pessimist. In October, she met backstage with representatives from the Black Lives Matter movement. The discussion was recorded — though it's not clear if Clinton knew that at the time — and the result is a revealing look into her politics.

For the first 10 minutes, Clinton is polite, conciliatory, and careful. She both justifies and apologizes for her tough-on-crime past, and she argues that caution is required by the political present. She tries to make the activists feel heard without promising anything she can't deliver. She says she needs them to develop solutions that she can sell and pass.

But the activists give no ground. "What you just said was a form of victim blaming," one of them replies. "You were saying what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts is to talk about policy change."

At this, Clinton's demeanor changes. Real emotion breaks through. She interrupts her interlocutor and raises her voice.

"I don’t believe you change hearts," she says. "I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not."

This is Hillary Clinton's political philosophy in a nutshell. It is the hard-won lessons of a politician who had a front-row seat to both Bill Clinton's impeachment and Barack Obama's release of his longform birth certificate. It's the conclusion of someone who has tried to win change amidst Democratic and Republican Congresses, who has worked out of the White House and out of the Capitol, who has watched disagreement and polarization prove intractable, who has seen grand plans die amidst gridlock.

In his influential 2008 essay on Democratic theories of change, Mark Schmitt wrote that "Clinton's theory in a sense takes the status quo for granted more than the others, but it's appropriate in certain situations. ... Superior knowledge and diligence can be a tool of power."

Clinton's theory of change is probably analytically correct, and it's well-suited to a world in which Republicans will almost certainly continue to control the House, and so a Democratic president will have to grind out victories of compromise in Congress and of bureaucratic mastery through executive action.

But it is not an inspiring vision — it does not promise grand advances, transformative change, or a kinder, gentler political sphere. Clinton has the audacity to believe in the limits of her persuasive and political power, and an emphasis on limits doesn't fill arenas.

Bernie Sanders and the silent progressive majority

Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Event In Mason City
Even Sanders's signs look like Obama's.
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders's visions of politics is simple, and it is stark. Hillary Clinton doesn't believe you can change hearts. Bernie Sanders doesn't believe you need to change hearts.

In Sanders's view, there's something akin to a populist silent majority lurking in America — a majority that already agrees with liberals but that's been alienated by Democrats who give in to wealthy interests and compromise their principles.

When I interviewed Sanders back in July, I asked him why he had never joined the Democratic Party. His answer was telling. "Are the Democrats 10 times, 100 times better on all of the issues than the Republicans?" he said. "They surely are, but I think it would be hard to imagine if you walked out of here or walked down the street or went a few miles away from here and you stopped somebody on the street and you said, 'Do you think that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class?' People would look at you and say, 'What are you talking about?'"

This, to Sanders, is the core failure of the Democratic Party — of Obama, of Clinton, of everyone. They haven't made it sufficiently clear which side they're on. His campaign, then, is about clarifying which side he's on — which he does through his rhetoric, his policies, and his political style.

For Sanders, supporting the dissolution of the big banks or the nationalization of health insurance or free college tuition isn't so much about the details of his plans but about showing that he's on the side of the working class and unafraid to take on moneyed interests.

This has frustrated some pundits. Paul Krugman was a skeptic of much of Obama's hope-and-change rhetoric in 2008, and he's a skeptic of Sanders's rhetoric now. In his column, he decried "the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor" — a folly he believes both Sanders and his supporters to be guilty of.

But Sanders's belief in the plausibility of a "political revolution" is also based off a specific critique of Obama's presidency and its approach to wielding power. In his view, Obama had it within his power to upend the rules of politics in 2008, when he was pulling record crowds and creating a new model for political organizing. Then he got elected and ... stopped. He went from revolutionizing the outside game to trying to master the inside game. He let Organizing for America wither, and he compromised with every major interest group that stood in his way.

"The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama," Sanders told Vox's Andrew Prokop in 2014, "is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before."

This is the vision Sanders is selling in Iowa. It's a vision that is hopeful both in its diagnosis of the problems in American politics and in its prescription. It's a vision that says liberals were right all along, and the American people have always been with them, and it's the corrosive influence of corporate donors that has snapped that bond and confused the country.

It's a vision that is intuitively plausible to many liberals because it resonates with their own experience. They remember being excited by the promise of Obama's agenda and then disappointed by the compromises he made, the fights he backed away from, the deals he cut with industry. They remember being organized in 2008 and demoralized in 2010. They remember feeling like they could accomplish anything, only to be told they needed to stop hoping for so much.

And it's a vision that underscores the very real ways in which Clinton and even Obama's political pragmatism blurs into political cynicism. The limits of the presidency and public opinion are very real, but the massive speaking fees Clinton accepted from multinational corporations, the huge amounts of money Obama raised from Wall Street, the fundraisers they both attend for their personal Super PACs, and the ex-financiers both of them relied on as advisers all help explain, to Sanders and his supporters, why Clinton and Obama's agendas were so compromised, and why their dimmer view of the possibilities of American politics may be more than a little self-interested.

"You need a progressive agenda, then you need the ability to go out and organize people," Sanders told me. "When that happens, things change here; it's not the other way around."

How Obama and Clinton's visions of politics converged

obama on phone oval office Pete Souza/White House

No member of the Obama team shows how far "hope and change" has fallen than Obama himself. In a recent interview with Politico, the president rejected the idea that Sanders is his real heir. After saying that Sanders's full-throated progressivism "has an appeal and I understand that," Obama went on to offer a description of Clinton's career that could also serve as a rebuke to those disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of his 2008 campaign.

"What Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives," he said.

Obama's team have always bridled against the accusation that they lost interest in organizing on the day their candidate took the oath of office. They didn't win the election and then forget about the importance of their grassroots army. They think they got elected and learned what was required to pass major legislation. They note that most members of the House of Representatives hail from congressional districts that didn't vote for Obama — because of gerrymandering and geography, there's a sharp mismatch between the voters they could organize and the voters Republican members of Congress fear.

These kinds of structural explanations for the slow pace of political change have become more dominant in the Obama era. It's common today, in a way it wasn't in 2007, to see both pundits and politicians focus on the role that rising polarization plays in undermining bipartisanship, the perverse incentives of the filibuster, or the enduring congressional advantage that Republicans get from gerrymandering and geography.

This is part of why Sanders has elicited a bit of a backlash from the commentariat. There's a belief that he hasn't so much learned the lessons of the Obama era as ignored them. "In place of any practical road map to enacting his ideas, Sanders substitutes the 'political revolution,' an event he invokes constantly that will sweep aside all impediments," writes Jonathan Chait. "His appeal borrows more from the tea party than from Obama — Sanders draws upon the left’s frustration with the limits of shared power in much the same way as Cruz has done."

To Sanders and his supporters, Chait's perspective reflects a kind of learned helplessness among Democratic elites. They have so forgotten how to appeal to working-class Americans that they have come to doubt it can even be done. This is defeatism masquerading as realism — and it's exactly what corporations want you to believe.

Obama, for all his political optimism, is on Clinton's side of this debate. He doesn't just seem frustrated by Sanders's theory of political revolution — he seems, at times, regretful about the high expectations he created for liberals in 2008, and the fury with which his campaign assailed Clinton for the narrowness of her political vision.

"I think that the truth is in 2007 and 2008, sometimes my supporters and my staff, I think, got too huffy about what were legitimate questions she was raising," he said.

Hillary Clinton is a fighter. But who wants a fight?

Hillary Clinton Addresses Issues Raised In Presidential Debate
Hillary Clinton: the fightingest fighter to ever fight.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

If Obama and many pundits have lost faith in the hopes embedded in Obamaism, Bernie Sanders's rise is proof that ordinary liberals haven't. Sanders may have ignored the lessons of the Obama era in favor of a more congenial, if less realistic, theory of American politics, but Clinton's campaign is trapped by its pragmatism. Clinton has once again found herself selling realism to voters who want hope.

As Matt Yglesias wrote, Sanders is "tapping into the exact same emotional current that Obama did. There are some things in the United States that are deeply and profoundly wrong. Contemplating them could drive a person to despair. Or they could embrace hope. Hope that yes we can make enormous change happen if individual people believe things can get better ... and come together to make it so. Sanders has a story that channels these emotions. Not everyone finds that story plausible, but it's a story. And Clinton really doesn't have one."

Hillary Clinton likes to say that she's "a fighter." She and her campaign use the term so often that it's become almost a running joke among the press. As Byron York wrote when Clinton's launched her 2016 campaign with a speech laying out "the four fights" she would wage, Hillary Clinton is "the fightingest fighter in the fight."

I'm sure that the word "fighter" polls well — otherwise, the Clinton campaign wouldn't use it so much. But I'm not sure it wears well. Voters don't want someone who will fight. They want someone who will win. The idea of politics as an unending, zero-sum war is part of why Americans hate politics in the first place.

The problem for Clinton is that the immediate future looks grim for the progressive agenda, and she knows it. Republicans are likely to hold both the House and the Senate. They have a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and, at least for the moment, huge majorities in governorships and state legislatures. Americans are, if anything, growing more divided. Money is an ever more powerful force in American politics. The fact that voters don't want a fight doesn't mean they're not going to have one.

Clinton doesn't have an easy answer for any of this, and, perhaps to her credit, she's refused to pretend otherwise. Democrats were bitterly disappointed by the compromises Obama made when he had huge Democratic majorities. The compromises the next Democratic president will have to make, given the likely Republican dominance of Congress, are going to be even more brutal for liberals — and if they're not, it will likely be because nothing of importance gets done in the first place.

The argument for Clinton is that she's best suited to handle this war of partisan attrition — she knows how to work the bureaucracy, defend against a hostile Congress, and find incremental gains where they exist. This is a realistic vision of a Democratic presidency after Obama. It's a vision, as best I can tell, that's shared by Obama. But it's not a vision liberals want to believe in. It's not a vision that Hillary Clinton has figured out how to sell. Perhaps it's not a vision that can be sold.

Bernie Sanders's vision of politics may be less realistic, but it's a vision suffused with hope. And there's never been anything audacious about asking voters to hope.

No one knows this better than Obama himself. "My bet — and I may end up being wrong about this — my bet is that the candidate who can project hope still is the candidate who the American people, over the long term, will gravitate toward."


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