Looking out at the orchestra seats and up at two balconies filled with supporters greeting her with a standing ovation at Harlem’s 1,500-seat Apollo Theater, Hillary Clinton declared, “It is wonderful to be back home in New York. Just extraordinary to look out at this crowd.”
Then, with the awareness of the burdens on aging knees, the former New York senator added, “Please be seated. You can jump up from time to time.”
During 1960 presidential campaign, swooning teenagers who ran after John Kennedy’s convertible were called “jumpers.” For Hillary, the predominant mood during her lunchtime kick-off rally for the April 19 New York primary was affection rather than raucous enthusiasm.
This was a New York crowd (yarmulkes, man buns and greying sensible haircuts). The older Democrats had supported Clinton’s 2000 and 2006 Senate races as well as her ill-fated 2008 presidential bid against Barack Obama. The younger voters played against generational stereotypes mandating that they believe in the dreamy air castles of Bernie Sanders.
“I don’t have to tell you — this is a wild election year,” Clinton said in a tone that acknowledged that “wild” was an understatement. “I’m not taking anything or anyone for granted. We’re going to work for every vote in every part of the state just like I did when I ran for the Senate.”
It is difficult to imagine a presidential candidate more out of step than Hillary with the incoherent emotionalism running through the primaries in both parties.
The appeal of Donald Trump’s bilious attacks and drunk-on-a-bar-stool issue positions defies rational analysis. But it is also stunning to see the former first lady, senator and secretary of state on the defensive against a 74-year-old backbench socialist senator who draws thousands of Democrats to monster rallies at which he excoriates the “rigged economy” in a raspy voice.
Voters can respond to anxious times in two diametrically different ways. They can embrace the cult of the outsider personified by Trump and Sanders. Or they can opt for stability, predictability and competence in the form of Hillary Clinton.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the likely majority leader if the Democrats keep the White House and retake the Senate, used a head-and-heart trope in introducing his former Capitol Hill colleague at the Apollo. “Hillary understands,” Schumer said, “in both an intellectual and a heartfelt way the biggest problems facing our country.”
For Clinton, the Apollo appearance give wing to her New York primary stump speech, which she delivered while using two hard-to-spot Teleprompters. Her husband (mentioned only in passing) and her State Department years were relegated to the sidelines. Instead, she stressed her accomplishments as senator, from winning health benefits for 9/11 first responders to helping upstate farmers from the Finger Lakes sell their produce at Manhattan green markets.
This is a far cry from Sanders’ call for tuition-free college and Medicare for all. But both Schumer and Hillary mentioned her fierce advocacy of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which currently covers 8 million children, after the 1994 collapse of her overarching attempt at health-care reform.
CHIP was pure incrementalism, an offering at the shrine of the Art of the Possible. But as Hillary proudly put it, “When you get knocked down in life — and in politics — you’ve got to get right back up and keep on working. When the insurance industry blocked our push for universal health care … I partnered with Republicans and Democrats to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”
Listening to Hillary’s half-hour speech (and, yes, the mind can drift while she’s speaking), I realized that we probably have a better advance sense of her presidency than that offered by any other candidate in the past half century. There are no major mysteries about a second Clinton White House other than the role that would be played by Bill.
Unless the Democrats win back the House as well as the Senate in a turn-the-map-blue landslide, Hillary’s domestic policy agenda would focus on what might pass Congress rather than what plays to Democratic dreams.
Aware of her problems with the Democratic Party’s left flank, President Hillary Clinton would presumably avoid all new trade treaties. And she would take pains to win a few symbolic victories against Wall Street. But that probably would be the extent of her catering to the Bernie Brigades.
Unlike Barack Obama, Hillary in the White House would use every tool of persuasion (White House movie nights, frequent meetings with the GOP congressional leadership) to find avenues for compromise. Her outreach efforts may not yield any more success than Obama’s aloof disdain for Congress, but (as with so much else in Hillary’s career) it would not be for lack of trying.
Candidates running for president just shy of their 70th birthday probably cannot change their basic natures. Which is why a Hillary Clinton White House would almost certainly make a fetish out of secrecy and find it hard to conceal its contempt for the press. After nearly a quarter century in the unforgiving limelight, Hillary probably could not shed her natural defensiveness even if she wanted to.
On foreign policy, she would be less skittish than Obama about committing U.S. military forces abroad and less willing to convince herself that inaction represents a wise long-term policy. Yet compared to the bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age Republicans (Ted Cruz, I’m talking to you), the nation’s first woman president would probably first search for a diplomatic solution before she went off with guns blazing.
Little about this White House agenda would prompt repeated standing ovations from partisan Democrats. They probably would nod approvingly — and admire the new president’s pluck in searching for compromise with seemingly intransigent Republicans. And Americans as a whole might even feel confident about President Hillary Clinton answering a 3:00 a.m. crisis phone call.
So, in these tumultuous times, the underlying message of the Clinton campaign is: “Please be seated. Everything will be okay.”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro
is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale.
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