Mario and Niccolò: Poets, Punchers, and Plodders

by Michael Liss

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” —Mario Cuomo, 1985

If Hillary Clinton does not become the next President of the United States, I have a feeling that whatever her regrets might be about emails and Benghazi, she's going to spend most of her remaining years wondering just how fate led her to be married to one political genius, be outmaneuvered by, lose to, and then serve under a second, and get jack-hammered by a third.

Bill, of course, was in his own league. Even now, with his fastball diminished by age, he can still conjure up a Luis Tiant-like variety of curves, knucklers, and other off-speed stuff. But in his prime, Bill had all the tools. He was the Muhammed Ali of politics. He could float, he could dip and dodge and shuffle and rope-a-dope, he could even sting like a bee (or hit like a mule) when needed, and all the while spouting his own special brand of poetry. Bill had another gift as well, less apparent, but there. He was a triple threat—not only a puncher and a poet, but also a worker, a real policy wonk who dove deep into the details. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons Bill and Hillary stayed together through all of Bill's “adventures” was that they respected in each other the same quality—the willingness to keep at it doggedly until the task was accomplished, the staying power of plodders who won't give up. There was a price, of course, to Hillary's perseverance, as, to this day, she still carries a Clinton Bulls-Eye on her back—for his sins as well as her own.

When, in 2008, she reached for the nomination she was sure was hers, she couldn't possibly have expected that a second generational talent would stand in her way—Barack Obama. Yes, he gave a phenomenal speech at the 2004 Convention, but she clearly did not see him as a serious threat for the top spot. Obama looked Vice-Presidential to her—the guy who could go on her short list and perhaps even be an effective surrogate, but was more likely headed back to the Senate for more seasoning.

Hillary became the first national victim (John McCain and Mitt Romney would follow) of Mr. Obama's secret weapon—he's a lot like Derek Jeter in his prime, underestimated for being overestimated. What many of the President's political opponents have never quite grasped is that the extraordinary arc of his life is of his own design, not some mad spasm of feel-good political correctness. Behind the star status, and the poetry that enrages so many, is a cool organizing intelligence, a deliberateness, a carefully thought-out ground game. Obama doesn't punch much (his historic “first” status certainly constrains him), but he can grind it out with the best of them.

The Obama Presidency has been an extraordinary enigma. First, the man himself is opaque. I would imagine that very few people, beyond Michelle and perhaps his inner circle, really understand him, and it strikes me that it is not in his character to want to give more. Instead, he's become a vessel for our hopes and fears, our anxiety and anger. Rarely do you ever get a dispassionate analysis of his words and acts. From the right, there is a fun-house mirror conception of Obama the alien with a secret agenda to destroy us both from without and within—a view that isn't just whispered from the fringes, but is shouted even from Convention podiums. From the left, the President's supporters feel compelled to defend all his choices, seemingly unable to distinguish between the good ones and the bad ones. I think when the dust settles, history will grant a mixed but positive view, with a substantial qualifier of time and opportunities lost. We could have tackled big issues with Mr. Obama, who had the street cred to bring liberals and progressives to the bargaining table, but we failed. Obama wasn't effective at reaching out, and Republicans found early profit in ginned-up outrage and obstruction. They ended at a standoff. The GOP refused to accept him as President, and he reacted by stretching the boundaries of his office.

You can get into endless arguments about who is more responsible, but, in the end, it is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is the nihilism and unbridled anger it unleashed. More and more people are enraged by what they see, beyond the point of mere political opposition. And millions and millions of voters perceive themselves as being the victims of forces beyond their control with leadership that seems deaf to their concerns. Some are stoked by an on-the-make media and amoral politicians adding to their bottom line of dollars and votes. Others are largely apolitical observers, but feeling economic and/or cultural uncertainty.

Enter, Trump. In his own way, he was just as unexpected a talent as Barack Obama. He sensed something that other Republican candidates did not get—that the left-behinds weren't necessarily pointillists on the issues and could be appealed to if you just made the effort—and convinced them you could get things done.

It was Trump's good fortune that the rest of the conga-line failed to recognize that a new dynamic was emerging. They were replaying 2008 and 2012—competing for the prize of most attractive package that could be wrapped around a doctrinaire core. When Trump began winning, their reaction was to critique Trump for not being a “true” conservative and questioning whether his supporters were “real” Republicans. Paradoxically, this reinforced his central theme—their supposed purity had accomplished nothing, and it was time for a real man, the biggest, meanest SOB in the valley, to bang some heads together.

That was Trump's flash of insight. Simplify. Pare down (or even reject) the standard GOP two dozen articles of faith, and pound away at what really bothers people in their gut.

Cleveland was orchestrated to tie it all together. You were either in or out—either you played by the rules—Trump's rules—or he made you play by them. That applied to both Clintons—the “hate Hillary” ferocity was overwhelming, surpassing the previous high-water mark of “hate Obama” (no mean feat.) It applied to Ted Cruz, who, in an attempt to boost himself at Trump's expense, found himself booed and shunned, jeopardizing his future. It applied to domestic enemies, whether they were of the wrong country of national origin, the wrong religion, or just the wrong opinions—Trump was an equal opportunity threatener. It applied to trading partners he didn't like (China) and allies (like NATO nations) that he didn't think were pulling their weight. Establishment people (in both parties) blanched. The crowd roared for every bit of it—even many of those who came to Cleveland as doubters.

What's next? The Iowa Electronic Markets give Hillary a 70% chance of winning. I think that's way too optimistic. Trump isn't just a puncher—he's a crude street poet who has learned to make the meter of his verse the war drum. He's now Mr. Law and Order, a trope that really moves a portion of the electorate, and even sending out the grotesque Rudy Giuliani and the unbearably needy Chris Christie won't dissipate that. On trade deals and globalization, it doesn't matter that academicians and big business tout their overall economic value; too many people perceive themselves as losers, and they want someone to push back. On immigration and Muslims, the raw adrenaline that Trump and his surrogates push into every conversation (terrorists, murderers and rapists) is taking its toll on traditional American notions of openness and fair play.

Trump is, of course, doing it ugly—the insults, the crude appeal to prejudice, the apparent embrace of far-right support are key components of his success. But Hillary cannot comfort herself with the idea the majority of voters will reject Trump because “decent people” don't think that way—that they won't want to be associated with the worst of Trump's supporters. If that is what she is counting on, she's wrong. There are plenty of “decent people” who will vote for Trump, some out of party loyalty or dislike of Hillary, but more because they just want things to get better for them, and they don't see another way out.

That is Hillary's challenge. She has a tightrope to walk, and she has very little time in which to do it. She can't be something she isn't she's a plodder—but she's going to have to earn the respect of the electorate—she's going to have to show she can take a punch, and give one. And she has to come up with a clearer explanation of why her way is better than Trump's, which is going to be difficult. Trump finds a straw man, waves a (muscular) chicken at things, and says “Boo,” and many of his supporters believe it will happen.

This might mean taking risks, telling the truth instead of giving in to the urge to pander—and Hillary is one of the most risk-averse politicians of all time. She may have to say to coal miners “we could roll back every environmental regulation on Earth, and it still doesn't change market forces that make other forms of energy cheaper and cleaner.” She may have to tell plant workers that globalization is a force that cannot be stopped, but her government will obsess over retraining, resettling, incentivizing new construction, infrastructure. She's going to have to make the superficially unpopular case for engagement in foreign affairs and for keeping your treaty responsibilities.

Really telling the truth, as opposed to shooting your mouth off, takes guts. None of these things are going to be easy. It's not in her wheelhouse to brawl, and she's clearly charisma-challenged. Fighting it out on ideas is tricky when you are going toe to toe with someone who's entire candidacy is based on the idea that (pugnacious) process matters far more than nuanced policy. But she must do it, and she must energize others to help her, convince them that taking their ball and going home (hello, Sandernistas) or picking Donald Trump is a path to destruction.

Machiavelli observed, in The Prince, “Whosoever is responsible for allowing another to be powerful only ruins himself, for this power is brought into being either by ingenuity or by force, and both of these work against the power that allows it.”

That's her real message. Her way is better. His way is ruinous. The Presidency is the most indispensable job in the world, far too important, far too complex to be given to a man who is a walking, talking revenge-fantasy movie.

It's going to take every plodding, prosaic bit of energy and grit in her.