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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Big ideas for the Front-Runner

Yesterday in Political Strategy Notes I flagged Jonathan Alter’s Daily Beast post urging Hillary Clinton to embrace an idea promoted, though not originated, by Sen. Bernie Sanders — free college education.
Alter’s point was well-argued, though it should be noted that Clinton has done alright with her current advisors, having won about 3 million* more votes than her adversary. But also give Sanders due credit for running a great campaign that has profoundy transformed the 2016 election, and made affordable education a leading issue.
Alter’s argument works for Clinton because it can connect her in a more substantial way to a couple of needed constituencies, youth and their parents. And if Clinton needed even more unsolicited advice, today we have Tomothy Egan’s NYT column on “Hillary’s Big Idea,” urging the Democratic front-runner to embrace “something grand and unifying and bigger than herself.”
That’s never a bad idea. But the challenge is to keep it grand without sounding grandiose and big, without sounding YUGE. Fortunately, Dems do have a role model who knows how to work such a tone, President Obama.
The President’s measured, dignified tone in making his arguments sets a noteworthy standard for any Democratic candidate. He can turn on the inspirational heat, and even attack when the occasion calls for it. But he understands what looking “presidential” is all about.
“If nothing else,” writes Egan, “the astounding presidential election of 2016 has shown that Americans are ready to junk the present system and try something bold, even reckless. Small ball is out. Incremental change is a nonstarter. Big will beat little.”
I vote we skip the “reckless” part. Republicans seem to have that market well-cornered, and that’s a good thing for Dems. Let’s not emulate one of their most glaring weaknesses, nor forfeit one of Clinton’s strongest assets — that she is sober and serious about policy.
Egan takes pot shots at all the presidential candidates. But his zingers directed at Clinton make some points worth considering, including “no one in the United States is more qualified to be president than the former madam secretary. And yet, her trumpet is barely a bugle; she’s the shrug candidate…She’s not a natural politician, as she admits, though her game was sharp in New York. And Clinton fatigue is no passing hangover.” Further,

But compared with the monumental flaws of Trump, Clinton is in great shape. You don’t need the oratorical gifts of Barack Obama, the élan of John F. Kennedy or the kinetic spark of Teddy Roosevelt to be president.
What you do need is a big idea, something much greater than the personality of the politician. As John Kasich admitted on Wednesday: “If you don’t have ideas, you got nothing, and frankly my Republican Party doesn’t like ideas.”
Hillary Clinton has ideas, but what is the overarching one? “Fighting for us,” her slogan, sounds like poll-driven pablum.

If Egan is right, Job One ought to be a better slogan that somehow encapsulates more vividly why she should be president. As for the ‘first woman pesidentt’ thing, Egan says “The novelty is meh.” There is great merit in having a woman at the helm of the Democratic Party, as far as inspiring woman voters and candidates. But being closely-identified with a highly-popular economic reform is significant value added to her campaign, the kind that can win swing voters.
Egan is surely right that Clinton could benefit from projecting a more inspiring vision, and Alter’s suggestion is a good start. But she has shown impressive management, planning and decision-making skills already. She has recruited an extraordinary campaign team, which has gotten good results. More than any other candidate in recent memory, Clinton has demonstrated capacity for learning from mistakes, and doing better going forward. That’s something many voters want to see in their president.
The other thing President Obama has taught through his example, in appointing Clinton Secretary of State, is the power of embracing your former adversaries in a creative way. Clinton has recently indicated that she has learned that lesson. And if she wins the nomination, she should find a way for Sanders to help empower her presidency with his political integrity, grace and policy insights.
*Correction; Clinton has a popular vote lead over Sen. Sanders of nearly 2.7 million, not 3 milion as is stated in the second paragraph. I regret the error.

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