By conventional yardsticks, it would seem that Clinton has the advantage going into the Milwaukee debate, tonight. She has a narrow lead in Wisconsin polls and a 30 point lead in another key midwestern state: Michigan. She is the presumptive leader in national polls. She has more super delegates by a wide margin.
Still, I am not so sure Clinton really has the edge. Here’s why:
The symbolism of Flint is paramount. Even though the Flint debate is several weeks away, all Democratic Party debates will essentially be Flint debates.
The families of Flint have suffered immeasurably from the tragic and no doubt criminal behavior of their elected officials. Changes to the water supply pushed through to save money resulted in widespread lead poisoning, including many children. Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration appears to have been unforgivably negligent at best, sadistically indifferent at worst.
In response to the water poisoning in Flint, the Clinton team contacted the local mayor, offered to help, and seems to have helped speed up the process of getting emergency resources to the city. Sanders, by contrast, called for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder. Two different approaches to the same problem–both important.
The problem for Clinton is that she is not running a campaign where she is pushing a great deal of symbolic politics. In fact, she is doing the opposite. When pushed by the large vision of the Sanders campaign, her reaction has not been to advance her own large vision, but to assert the importance of not giving in to the impulse to tilt at windmills–to aim for small, incremental steps while the dreamers and big talkers talk about a brighter future.
To distinguish herself from Sanders, Clinton has taken an almost anti-charisma, anti-promise, anti-big change agenda. Talking to supporters from both candidates casts a start light on this contrast. Sanders supporters insist on the possibility of broad sweeping change to the underlying conditions of government, the economy, race relations, and climate change. Clinton supporters insist that big change cannot happen because of Republican obstructionism and that anyone who thinks it can is childish.
Each campaign has fueled these narratives amongst their base, more or less. They embody the big difference in the campaigns: Sanders pushes hope through change; Clinton pushes confidence through continuity. Sanders advocates a break from the past; Clinton promises to not let the GOP take away the steps we’ve taken so far. Sanders calls for revolution; Clinton calls for patience.
We have a textbook contrast between change and continuity in the Democratic primary race, right now. To a certain extent, the same thing is happening in the GOP, although because of Trump and Cruz, that race appears to be a contest between dull and crazy.
It is in this environment where Sanders speaks to change and Clinton speaks to continuity that I believe Flint will be a difficult sell for Clinton.
Visceral suffering, particularly where children are involved, can find deep empathy amongst those advocating patience–there is no question that both candidates are deeply committed to helping right the wrongs that happened Flint. But when families have watched their children suffer from lead poisoning from tap water, what they are seeking is leadership that calls for deep, sweeping, structural change.
And, in fact, these are the changes that must happen in Flint, in Michigan, and in the country.
The children of Flint are victims not only of bad policy and bad state management of public utilities, they are victims of cruel indifference to working class and poor people.
They are victims to government who believes the lives of families in towns with chronic high unemployment–these families lives have no value.
They are victims of party obstructionism.
They are victims of an economic system that seeks to reward and protect big finance before it seeks to protect and nurture vulnerable children.
They are victims of systemic racism that refuses to see the dignity of all people as a worthwhile national priority.
In all of these, I believe both Sanders and Clinton are on the right side of the issues, but the Sanders campaign is simply better at speaking with passion and authenticity about the need for change.
Clinton, for all her experience, has moved her campaign to a place where their message is now: big change is important, but we can’t do it, so be patient.
She will most likely be pushed in the Flint debate to explain why she does not believe in big change, given crises like the Flint water poisoning. And when presented with these questions, she will most likely respond that she believes in big change, but–but she knows it is not possible and that we need to be cautious about people who promise it.
Sanders by contrast, will most likely say that if we work together we can achieve great things and that the problem is politicians who do not believe in the transformative potential of the American people.
Flint will be a frustrating result for Clinton, in other words, because her campaign has decided to argue against big vision–has chosen to sell Clintoiian centrist pragmatism as the antidote to big promise pipe dreams. And that’s a hard sell for families who are suffering.
It’s a hard sell in general.