One of the big talking points coming out of the Clinton campaign in the past few weeks has been that Sanders is “promising free stuff.” The logic is that whenever someone talks about universal healthcare or opening up public universities so there is no more tuition–the Clinton campaign wants to label those proposals as fanciful. We cannot just give away “free stuff,” the logic goes, because someone has to pay for it. The critique is often coupled to a judgement about people who believe in the “promise of free stuff” being less than adults–immature. People who are mature vote for a candidate who does not “promise free stuff.”
I have encountered this talking point more and more since the Sanders New Hampshire win–and it is fairly unshakeable. But there’s a problem with it that the Clinton team would be wise to consider.
Here’s the problem:
If your campaign is not articulating a big promise–a big vision about what will be better about the future when your candice wins–then your campaign is about continuity, not change.
In other words, most campaign experts will agree that at the most basic level, campaigns boil down to a very basic distinction: change vs. continuity.
Whether or not the winning message in a given cycle is change or continuity often depends on whether or not the incumbent is running. We have no incumbent. There is no strong argument for keeping things the same. Hence, this is a change election.
Think about the promise of the campaigns that are doing well–the big vision that rises above any specific proposal on their websites.
Trump: Promises to turn America into a successful business where we don’t care what others think.
Cruz: Promises to turn America into a Christian nation and fight anyone who gets in the way.
Sanders: Promises an America without big money and structural racism preventing us from achieving our goals.
Now, in addition to these three candidates, Kasich, Clinton and Bush all seem to be promising, something slightly different. Their promise seems a bit like this: Promises a well run government with the possibility of getting things done. They all have a great deal of experience, good resumes, histories of working on many issues both legislative and social.
Kasich and Bush are promising to overturn some of Obama’s key programs, but their vision is more or less to continue what they started in their home states–to continue in Washington, DC, what they see as their good work Ohio and Florida.
Clinton also has a continuity narrative: her big promise is to hold the line on Obama’s big legislative achievement and to continue in the White House, what she sees as her good work in the Department of State.
Continuity: Clinton, Kasich, and Bush
Change: Sanders, Trump, and Cruz
Now, we can quibble about the details of policy proposals and we can argue whether or not one candidate is promising “free stuff” or not (Trump is literally promising a giant wall on the Mexican border that will be free–someone else will pay for it), but there is little question that this is a year where voter excitement really seems to be for a big change. It’s a change year.
If that is the case, my sense is that Clinton is in the wrong column on this one. Her campaign has the potential to be about change, but so far her emphasis has been on continuity.
Whether or not the campaign sees themselves this way or not is another question. But there’s no doubt that this is a change year.