Avishai: Clinton Needs To Take Control Of The 'Story' Of This Election

John Locher

Every election is, in a way, a protest vote. Listen to this interview with Ron Susskind on “Radio Open Source” (hosted by the incomparable Chris Lydon) and then tell me the Clinton campaign does not need to change the focus of this race. We can’t take our eyes off Trump, Susskind says, because he has given us an unfinished story, which transforms into compelling drama—will he, or will he not, blow up Washington in the name of those left behind by global forces? Can he really pull it out? Clinton needs to give us a better story and a more interesting drama—stay loyal to Obama, but not become a captive of the status quo. She needs to give us something palpable to win or lose, which the press can start imagining to be the “story” of the election. Imagine, then, that she made the following speech:

My fellow Americans,

I know that you know my opponent’s faults. So I am going to stop harping on them. There are plenty of others—editors, historians, generals, officials in Republican administrations, icons of our culture—who feel embarrassed, and panicked, at the thought of Trump presidency. They provide you, every day, enough reason to reject him. I’ll add only that I’ve lived in New York long enough, and have known Donald long enough, to know that people in the real estate business call him “a closer”—call him this with a certain envy, even though the big New York banks stopped lending him money years ago—call him this because they know he’ll say anything, promise anything, insult anyone, flatter anyone, he thinks will turn a customer toward his deal. Donald is not an idiot. He just thinks you are.

But I also know that I have much to account for myself. The hard question I have to answer, and it’s time I admitted this, is why such obvious doubts about him have not translated into enthusiasm for my candidacy. What are the doubts about me? That’s what I want to speak about.

I’ve admitted that I’m not a natural politician, but that’s not the real problem. I am, as my friend Barack Obama put it in 2008, “likable enough.” Pundits fill air time telling you I have been too secretive, so you can’t really know me, or I have been in your face too long, so you are bored of me; or I am too programmed, or I’ve made gaffes; or I’m a woman, so the test is more demanding, or his boorishness is fascinating, so he’s graded on a curve. There is a measure of truth to all of these perceptions. But they miss the main point—the thing our media seems to miss most consistently.

This election is not a referendum on my arguable political talent or Trump’s arguable decency—nor is it a game of splicing together a majority of “demographics.” It is about your anxieties, your families. Somehow, almost unimaginably, a good number of you think Trump, born to his gilded penthouse, and profiteering by stiffing little guys, identifies with your problems, while Bill and I, who came from nothing, do not. This is partly my fault, I confess: I have been campaigning like an earnest student, learning how what seem big social problems have evolved, doing her homework, formulating papers, and wondering why you are not giving me an A.

What I’ve really failed to consider is the biggest problem of all. My positions don’t matter if, as President, I can’t get anything passed. And year after year, or what may seem year after year, the government has itself often seemed an embarrassment: dysfunctional, paralyzed, full of name-calling. Many of you would like to throw a bomb at Washington, though you know in your hearts that a bomb can only destroy. The bomb, in this election, is Trump.

I make proposals. Trump makes faces. The faces don’t have to work as legislation. But they express “attitude.”

After all, you’ve worked hard, did what was expected of you, and rightly feel you are being left behind. Economists tell you that we’re doing a lot better since the Bush administration tanked the economy—and we are. A lot better. But who exactly is we? Technological changes, global changes, demographic changes, medical changes, even climate changes—changes that could be opportunities—are making only the highly educated richer and the rest of Americans scared. There have been 11 million net new jobs created since the Republican recession of 2008-9. Only about 100,000 were meant for people without a college education.

You need real, immediate help from Washington: big spending on needed infrastructure, to create tens of thousands of jobs for people who once worked factory jobs; a simple public option, like Medicare, to guard your family’s health; university tuitions, or loan programs, that you can afford. We need immigration reform. Real help—now. You are not bigoted people—not in your heart. I was wrong to imply otherwise; I was sick with pneumonia and frustrated. Most Americans appreciate the social changes we have experienced over the past generation—civil rights, gay rights—and don’t want to turn the clock back. They don’t want, say, another Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

I want to be your champion, as I’ve been all my life. Yet you think of me as a creature of Washington and the privileged coasts that bankroll politicians. You think I’ll come to Washington and nothing will change. You think Trump, the TV boss firing people left and right, will be entertaining. You think, whatever.

Look, you have been victims of a perfect con. Republicans have branded themselves as the party of “government-is-the-problem.” Since 2010, when they won the House, they’ve done everything they could to sabotage, not only President Obama, but the very workings of government. I mean even routine things: raise the debt limit, advance nominations, amend language to make laws work better, build roads and bridges, fight disease—everything.

Republicans figured that if they helped make government work, President Obama might get credit. If they made government fail, either people would blame the President, or the press would be gullible enough to write “Washington is broken.” Ordinary people would blame government-in-general, and turn to the people who say, “You see?” For Republicans, sabotaging Washington has been a no-lose proposition. Congressional Republicans are not popular; but even that works to the advantage of a party that tells you government can’t work.

They want you, in other words, to believe that our government is like a car that’s run down of its own accord, or has had a driver-in-chief that failed to drive it properly—as if nobody was intentionally putting sand in the gears, and water in the gas tank. It’s pathetic what especially broadcast journalists fall for—how easily Republicans play them. “Washington is broken,” “Gridlock, gridlock.” Ok, then, you say, we’ll vote for the party that hates government. Throw a bomb. That will unlock things! Really?

I’m here to call out this con. But also to propose a way out.

Here’s the deal—call it “Hillary’s hundred days,” my contract with America. In my first three months in office I will propose three things: a one-half trillion dollar infrastructure bill, a public option for the Affordable Care Act, and a combination reduction of tuition for public university students and a new student loan program. These reforms will be financed by raising the cap on Social Security contributions and marginally higher taxes on people earning more than $250,000 dollars a year. The inequalities in this country are an outrage. This is a start.

And what you need to do is vote for House and Senate candidates who promise to support this deal. If you want change, don’t throw a bomb, vote a plan. You can’t send people who subvert government to Washington and expect the president to do much for you. We need a Democratic Congress to work with, not obstruct, a Democratic President. Who knows, perhaps even some Republicans will sign on. Many thoughtful Republicans are supporting me this time around, Bernie said we need a revolution. This is what revolution looks like, state by state, district by district. A congressional majority was always within our reach if only more of our voters show up. Nationally, statisticians say, we could do this with a majority of 53-4%. This is within our reach if our people—working people, young people—show up to vote.

The presidency is not a dictatorship. You secretly know that what I’ll propose for you will depend on Congressional approval. The consultants and pollsters are all telling you that state Republicans have so gerrymandered congressional districts that there is no way in hell I will ever be able to get my programs through. Well, I am also here to tell you that the consultants and pollsters underestimate you.

Between now and election day, I, President Obama, Bill, Tim, Joe, Bernie, and hundreds of others will fight to win, not only the presidency, but a House and Senate I can work with. The pundits will laugh at this; they’ll say I’m trying to take on more than I can possibly win, that I should listen to my consultants. I say, I’m trying to win this with you, for you. I say, this is the time for women to get mobilized, youth to get mobilized, unions to get mobilized. We can’t have real change without you.

I want your vote. I also don’t want us to live with illusions. Let’s really change things in Washington. I’ll be campaigning, as will my supporters, in every district where we have fighting chance. We can do this. Just watch us!