We’d like to begin this first of the semester article by apologizing for the lack of content thus far. We will be ramping up our efforts starting today, and for all of those who had been waiting to hear from us, we appreciate your patience and recommit ourselves to the cause of furthering and elevating civil discourse here at the University of Virginia.
After Secretary Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin margin of victory in Iowa and her thumping defeat in New Hampshire, there is no doubt that the race for the Democratic nomination will be a competitive, protracted one. Far from the easy sweep that the Secretary had hoped for in order to consolidate the party and remain loftily above the fray of the Republican blood bath, she now faces a better-funded and more pressing threat to her candidacy than any mainstream observer had anticipated in Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Senator Sanders can call the results of the New Hampshire primary an unequivocal victory, crushing Secretary Clinton across the demographic board. He hopes to maintain his momentum, leverage his cash advantage, and pressure the Secretary from her left in the hopes of winning the battle over the soul of the Democratic Party and the country. Senator Sanders raised $20 million in January to Secretary Clinton’s $15 million, $3 million in the twenty-four hours following his virtual tie in Iowa, and $6 million in the few days after the New Hampshire primary. He has received over 3.5 million individual contributions from a small donor pool of over 1 million for which the average donation was $34. Secretary Clinton’s campaign has not released any information on what they have received in the month of February, but it doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that the Secretary probably has not been able to raise an amount equal to and from as diverse a selection as Senator Sanders’s donations. If ever one could quantify an enthusiasm gap beyond intangibles like the atmosphere of each candidate’s campaign rallies, the statistics surrounding their donations are the closest we might get. So why are Democratic primary voters feeling the Bern with so much more gusto than Secretary Clinton’s supporters are saying #ImWithHer?
An exchange that occurred between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders near the end of tonight’s Democratic debate was highly revelatory. PBS anchor Judy Woodruff relayed a question from Facebook that asked both candidates to “name two leaders – one American and one foreign – who would influence your foreign policy decisions,” and explain why. Senator Sanders launched into a detailed answer on why he would look to FDR, noting his domestic credentials in response to a question about foreign policy. Despite this snag, he delivered a thoughtful, well-reasoned, and earnest assessment of FDR’s leadership, and then cited Winston Churchill’s efforts to raise the spirit of the British people as they faced the Nazi onslaught. It was a tough question to answer on the spot, and he missed a crucial part of it, but you could tell that he meant every word. Then Secretary Clinton got a turn. She quickly said she agrees with Senator Sanders’s choice of FDR, citing “the role that he played both in war and in peace on the economy and defeating fascism around the world.” She then picked Nelson Mandela as the foreign leader whose example she would look to “for his generosity of heart, his understanding of the need for reconciliation.” And then she pivoted to an attack on Senator Sanders’s criticisms of President Obama. She devoted an entire three sentences to the question and the rest of her time to leveling unfair accusations against Senator Sanders’s support for President Obama to portray herself as the one who would be fittest to carry on his legacy.
It is exactly that kind of cynical, evasive answer that turns voters off from her. The American people have made clear that they yearn for a special kind of moral leadership that Franklin Roosevelt was best at providing. They yearn for inspiration, for a vision of the country that they can identify with, to which they can attach their hopes, dreams, aspirations and feel that their choice in this election will help guide the country down a more harmonious, better path.
Senator Sanders provides vision at every turn. He cites his campaign contributions as evidence of his ability to bring Americans together in a mighty effort to retake the system from a corrupt few and reclaim it in the name of the people. Bernie seeks what he calls a political revolution. It may not be a full account of the story of the last few years, and his answers may be in need of greater detail, but his is a narrative that helps rekindle hope for what our democracy can achieve in a time of waning faith in our institutions. Nobody disputes Secretary Clinton’s incredible grasp of the issues, from their roots to their stems. But the Secretary has repeatedly failed to fit her candidacy into a larger-than-life narrative. Her campaign insists that Hillary is the best change-maker we have ever seen, that Hillary is a fighter, that Hillary would be ready on day one. As important as those qualities are, how does that compare to Barack Obama’s message of rising above the politics of division and fundamentally transforming it in the process? Or of John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier, who told the nation that we go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard, who appealed to the better angels of our nature when he told Americans to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country? Of Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, his Second Bill of Rights, his proclamation that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, his constant optimism in the face of Depression and war?
In September, this editorial board challenged Senator Sanders to recast his message within the framework of American history. While the advice still stands, we believe that it is Secretary Clinton who is in far more dire need of better messaging. Mario Cuomo said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The making of a President depends greatly on the qualifications of the candidate herself and the policy prose that she can lay before the American people for their judgment. But just as importantly, if not more so, it depends on whether she can explain her candidacy in the soaring rhetoric and high-minded poetry that allows people to believe that there is such a thing as human greatness and that it operates on their behalf. Until Secretary Clinton can do this convincingly, her supporters will remain the lackluster band of anxious observers who would prefer to get this campaigning shtick over with and lock her into four years in the White House as soon as possible.