There are many stories one could tell about Bernie Sanders’ defeat of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.
One is that Sanders has captured the prevailing sentiment among Democrats, a fervent desire for political revolution to unmake a corrupt system, and he will ride this desire all the way to the nomination.
Another is that Tuesday’s result was a function of some idiosyncratic features of that primary, particularly New Hampshire’s demographic homogeneity and the fact that independents are allowed to vote in the party primary; now that the race moves to states that better represent the Democratic Party, Clinton’s strength among Latinos and African-Americans will move her back into command for good.
Either of those stories might be true.
But right now, the Clinton campaign has a much bigger problem than the story it wants to tell about New Hampshire. That problem is this: the campaign has no story to tell the voters about Hillary Clinton and why she should be president.
Having a good story doesn’t guarantee you victory, but nobody becomes president without one. The story has to contain three simple elements. First, it explains what the problem is. Second, it explains what the solution is. And third, it explains why this candidate, and only this candidate, is the person who can bring the country from where it is now to where it ought to be.
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have very simple messages that are resonating with substantial parts of the base voters in each one’s party. Trump says that America is being played for chumps, and only a fantastic, luxurious individual like him can make us win again. Sanders says that the political system is corrupted by the influence of the wealthy and corporations, and a revolution delivered by an unsullied figure like him is necessary to break their stranglehold on our politics. Anyone who has paid attention to the campaign for five minutes understands what those messages are, whether you agree with either one of them or not.
Now tell me: What’s Hillary Clinton’s message?
She doesn’t have one. She doesn’t have a clear diagnosis of the problem the country faces, nor does she have an explanation of what the solution is, nor can she say why only she can bring about the better future voters are hoping for.
Of course, Clinton can make a persuasive argument for her preferred solution on any policy area you can name. She also has a strong argument for why Sanders is being unrealistic about much of what he wants to do, an argument I basically agree with. And if you asked, she could tell you all about her ample qualifications for the presidency. But it doesn’t add up to a coherent story.
What’s remarkable about this gaping hole in her candidacy is that she faced exactly the same problem eight years ago, and lost in part because she never solved it. Barack Obama told voters that our politics was being constrained by partisan bickering and small thinking, and only he, a new, inspiring figure, could forge consensus and bring the kind of change our future demanded.
You might not think he succeeded in that, but at the time it was exactly what voters believed we needed. Far more than Obama’s specific policy ideas — which barely differed from Clinton’s at all — that vision and the way he embodied it was what drew first Democrats and then general election voters to him.
I’m a little reluctant to make this critique, because reporters and pundits are often too eager to play political consultant and tell candidates and operatives how to do their jobs, when there are more important things we could be talking about. And candidates don’t need more encouragement to oversimplify things and reduce all the complexities of policy and politics to bumper sticker-ready slogans.
Nevertheless, the fact is that human beings understand the world through stories, which help bring coherence to complex situations. And there’s no reason a campaign can’t offer voters both lengthy policy plans and a simple, broad structure that organizes them into an understandable whole.
Clinton’s campaign would argue that she has such a story to tell. In her speech in New Hampshire Tuesday night, she listed many of the problems she wants to solve and explained how she can solve them through commitment and hard work.
Sources near to her tell Politico that now she will “push a new focus on systematic racism, criminal justice reform, voting rights and gun violence that will mitigate concerns about her lack of an inspirational message.”
That’s directed primarily at African-Americans, the Democratic Party’s largest and most loyal constituency group, and the one no Democrat can win the nomination without. If Clinton can hold those voters, she can probably turn back Sanders’ challenge.
But that’s far from guaranteed, and it’s a message that only addresses some of the problems the country faces.
In contrast to broad ideas like Sanders’ call for revolution or even Trump’s claim that we’re a country of losers, it can’t be easily and logically applied to any problem a voter might see as urgent. And it doesn’t tell you much about Hillary Clinton in particular, other than the fact that this is something she cares about.
There’s another successful presidential candidate we can remember who knew that being smart and experienced and having popular policy ideas wasn’t enough.
His name was Bill Clinton, and he told the country that as an innovative thinker hailing from a place called Hope, this representative of a new generation could carry America out of its doldrums. He may have been more of a natural politician than his wife, but he also had a story to tell, one the voters found compelling.
Hillary Clinton hasn’t told the country a story that connects their worries with her potential as a president.
But she’d better find one soon.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.