Hillary Clinton started playing with an idea as the New Hampshire primary approached, an over-arching theme that can turn what has sometimes seemed a grab-bag of goals into a coherent message. And after some tweaking, it’s coming together, and may work not only as a primary critique of Sanders but as a general campaign message as well.
The idea? “Break down all the barriers.”
As Politico’s Bill Scher notes, the idea comes out of a critique of Sanders’ views on racial inequality. As Ta-Nahesi Coates has observed, Sanders’ “economics first” approach to racial inequality denies the systemic nature of it. Voter ID laws, mortgage redlining, incarceration, and the wage gap all have economic elements. But fix the economic issue, and these problems don’t disappear. There are barriers that have nothing to do with money, as anyone who has had to deal with systemic discrimination knows. (Politico)
Clinton has picked this message up and run with it. As Politico notes, she mentioned “barriers” six times in a recent town hall, and I’ve heard it a number of times since then. And I’m hoping we’ll hear it even more.
It’s a brilliant refocussing of the campaign message for a number of reasons.
First, and most obviously, it’s the first succinct critique I’ve heard Clinton give of Sanders. Mind you, the critique she has been giving has been, more or less, this same critique, but it has been scattered, and often come across as a desperate plea for people to understand that she “is presenting more comprehensive policy than Sanders, and why can’t people see she is going further than Sanders?”
No one bought that. It seemed that it couldn’t possibly be true.
But here is a message which drives home that, to at least some of our youth, the guns we pump into our cities are as much a barrier to equality as is access to college. Here is a message that reminds us that the health care debate is, for the majority of our population, also a reproductive rights debate, where “establishment” groups like Planned Parenthood desperately need our help. It’s a reminder that Wall Street couldn’t care less one way or another about the right to choose, and yet access to abortion is being legislated out of existence one state at a time.
Secondly, it’s a message of hope fit for the disillusioned. It’s warm and fuzzy while nodding to the very real political and social environment we find ourselves in.
Third, it meshes with incrementalism. There’s going to be a lot of different barriers, and each one removed is a victory we should celebrate. In that way it’s also a justification of the progress Obama has made during his own presidency.
Fourth, it is a message that can be used, perhaps (add caveats here), for middle-class independents as well. Lack of parental leave is a barrier. Lack of equal pay. Lack of access to child care is a barrier. Lack of public transportation. Most people can think about their potential and the sometimes frustratingly small barriers that prevent them from achieving it. But most people don’t think of those things in terms of policy, and really, they should. Most people realize that Republicans talk about taxes, but ignore all the other things in your way.
Finally, it resonates with her personal story, in which she broke down a number of barriers for women, and is campaigning to break “the biggest barrier of them all” in becoming the first women president.
There was a point I knew that I was with Clinton last fall, and it came out of a fascinating but blunt conversation she had with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Responding to how social change comes about she says:
“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. 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. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential.”
From a person who has been accused of waffling and pandering and poll-testing every statement, well, it felt like none of those things. I’m not going to say it was “authentic”. Authenticity, in case you haven’t figured out yet, is a lie we tell ourselves so we can vote for people like us without feeling biased.
But that answer came from somewhere deep, from the immovable core of what it means to be Hillary Clinton. Racism is systemic; and the answer to it is not to be better people or “raise all boats” — the answer to it is to change the system. I think that is her true passion — identifying the sometimes unexpected ways that policies can affect outcomes (and doing it at an often dazzling level of detail), and I think she’ll run a much better campaign using a message that taps into that passion.
Final note: It would make a great slogan too for a Clinton-Warren ticket. This is Elizabeth Warren’s passion as well — not the broad Sanders critique, but the detailed investigation of all the policy levers that produce the current outcomes (if you haven’t read her book on the Two-Income Trap, you need to). I know Clinton-Warren is wishful thinking, but here’s hoping anyway.