What’s most interesting about the leaked audio of Hillary Clinton assessing the Bernie Sanders movement from February isn’t what she says about Bernie Sanders or his supporters. It’s what she says about herself.
Clinton does not — contrary to Politico’s initial, and quickly deleted, headline — mock Sanders’s supporters or Sanders himself. And before a room of wealthy donors, she doesn’t attack Sanders from the right — she doesn’t argue that she’s the only candidate who will save capitalism, or that a Denmark-style welfare state will crush America’s entrepreneurial grit.
Instead, she offers a theory for why she struggles so much to inspire young voters.
“It is difficult when you’re running to be president, and you understand how hard the job is,” she says in the audio. “I don’t want to overpromise. I don’t want to tell people things that I know we cannot do.”
This, more than anything else, is her critique of Sanders, and her explanation of his success. “There’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free health care, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.”
It’s easy to miss what’s new in that comment. Until the last clause, this tracks with Clinton’s public criticism of Sanders almost exactly. She frequently argued that his policies lacked crucial details, that the numbers didn’t add up, that the big dreams were unmoored from clear plans. It’s only in these comments that Clinton admits she understands the real source of the appeal.
People feel “that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough,” and even if they’re not sure where a Sanders or a Trump will take the country, they know their vision is to go further, faster, than Clinton is promising, and that matches their sense of what the moment requires.
Her effort to put herself in the shoes of younger millennials winds toward a similar conclusion. “If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing,” she says. “So I think we should all be really understanding of that and should try to do the best we can not to be, you know, a wet blanket on idealism.”
There’s an observation that the Atlantic’s Molly Ball made about Donald Trump that nailed a key part of his appeal: “All the other candidates say ‘Americans are angry, and I understand.’ Trump says, ‘I’M angry.’”
This describes the Clinton-Sanders dynamic, as well. Bernie Sanders says “I want a political revolution!” Hillary Clinton says, in effect, “I understand why young people might want a political revolution.” Clinton is stuck on the outside of youthful idealism looking in.
The audacity of political realism
I have written before about the audacity of Hillary Clinton’s political realism, but you see it again on display in these remarks. Her persistent theme is the danger of overpromising and the difficult work of persuading voters — particularly young ones — to stick around for the slow, grinding work of change. Her rallying cry is that modest victories can add up, over time, to something much grander.
“Young people seem to be listening to promises on both sides, and I'm worried that you can't get from here to there without going incrementally," she says.
This is Hillary Clinton's political philosophy in a nutshell. It is the hard-won lesson 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 amid 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 amid 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 approach is 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’s belief in the limits of her persuasive and political power might be admirable, but it doesn't fill arenas or win over idealistic young voters.
There is an ongoing effort to understand Clinton’s problems with millennial voters, and there have been no end of theories proffered. But this, I think, is one of the big gaps. The candidates who win over young voters — Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Howard Dean — do not unduly concern themselves with the limits of practical politics. They dream of a better system, and they invite young voters to share that dream.
Clinton doesn’t. She is resigned to the system we have, and she invites young voters to share that resignation. They want a political revolution, and she sympathizes, but then she says: “I think we should all be really understanding of that and should try to do the best we can not to be, you know, a wet blanket on idealism. We want people to be idealistic. We want them to set big goals. But to take what we can achieve now and try to present them as bigger goals.”
At a time when what we can achieve now is far from what voters wish was achievable, this is a realistic vision of American politics — it’s a vision that might even get some good things done — but it is not an inspiring one. And Clinton, as you can hear in these remarks, knows it.