Speaking Tuesday en route to victories in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, Hillary Clinton implored her supporters to “keep contributing” because “our campaign depends on small donations for the majority of its support.” She envisioned a future where young people will be able to “go to college without borrowing a dime for tuition” and promised to make sure that “Wall Street” and “overpaid corporate executives” do not take advantage of us. It brought to mind, well . . . this:
As Hillary expands her delegate lead and pivots (again) to an anticipated general election contest with Donald Trump, she is trying to figure out how to reach the voters who are fueling Bernie Sanders’ progressive insurgency and take control of a party that is being redefined on his terms. The generational divide which has marked the Democratic contest from the beginning is both a symbol of this shift and the reason why it will stick. Bernie’s Millennial supporters represent the future and are vital to the party’s prospects now. If Hillary is to be the nominee, which appears more likely than ever after last Tuesday’s vote, she needs to figure out how to bring them along.
Her problem is that she is trying to reach Bernie’s voters with policy ideas when they are concerned with the corruption of the political system that produced and propelled her candidacy. Overwhelming majorities of Democratic voters are on board with making college affordable and limiting the power of Wall Street, and with Hillary’s impressively long list of ideas for improving life for the downtrodden and the middle class. Sanders’ supporters want these things, too, but they primarily want to change the rules of a game that Hillary plays better than anyone. She’s not going to change too many minds by saying her campaign depends on small donations unless she addresses the source of the big ones. Her dilemma: how do you convince your opponent’s skeptical supporters that you stand against a political system tilted toward the super-rich while continuing to take their money?
This has been Bernie’s point all along, the cornerstone of his revolutionary rhetoric, and it’s why he has long been the best fit to an election cycle driven by anti-elite sentiment. He has pressed Clinton repeatedly on her ties with monied interests and she hasn’t been able to answer the question, choosing instead to pretend his commonsense assertion that big interests give big money for big favors is an attack on her character and judgment (how dare he suggest she can be bought?!), which she repels by reciting a litany of progressive accomplishments showing her loyalty to liberal causes. This misses the point by design. Hillary can’t say out loud what’s really happening – that she takes corporate and Wall Street money because without a movement like Bernie’s behind her it’s the only way to win an election – because to Bernie’s voters that’s the problem that needs to be fixed. So she offers rhetoric and deflection, and of course it hasn’t been enough to get it done.
In an election characterized by instability, it is too soon to know how far Hillary will need to go to unify her party in order to secure a path to the White House. She has taken the initial step of recalibrating her rhetoric to appeal to Bernie’s voters, signaling she understands which way the party is moving. But if she doesn’t want to remain exasperated and lost like her Kate McKinnon caricature on Saturday Night Live, unable to figure out how to get them to listen to her, she is going to have to start thinking about how to demonstrate some degree of independence from her corporate supporters. If Hillary hopes to embrace the party Bernie has been building, offer her strongest general election argument and make it possible for Sanders and his supporters to fight along side her in common cause, she will need to recognize – to paraphrase her husband – that it’s the system, stupid.