Hillary Clinton is playing into Bernie Sanders’ hands in New Hampshire.
True to instinct and history, Clinton is running a cautious, constrained, unimaginative front-runner’s campaign, limiting her exposure to small, by-invitation-only audiences, offering mostly bland generalities, and temporizing on thorny issues.
That kind of effort is not just dishwater dull. It also runs afoul of New Hampshire’s campaign tradition of open-to-all town-hall-style events where any enterprising citizen can ask a question of a candidate.
Enter Sanders, stage left, with a clearly defined message whose appeal reaches beyond diehard liberals to everyday Americans uneasy about the economic trends in the country. The self-described Vermont socialist drew perhaps 150 people to an event here on Wednesday, with another 60 who were turned away from the packed function room waiting in nearby Eagle Square to see him afterward.
Watching Sanders, you could almost think this was a Hollywood movie unspooling along a sentimental story line: A principled but unpolished long shot catches the imagination of an idealistic crowd of true believers with his straight-talking take-on-the-titans campaign.
Certainly Sanders fits the part. He seems more like an absent-minded professor than a practiced politician. Actually, make that, an absent-minded professor who has misplaced his lecture notes and so must rely on the vagaries of memory. Indeed, his presentation is so out-of-keeping with standard stump speeches that you find yourself wondering whether Sanders, whose long political career includes four terms as mayor of Burlington, eight as a US Representative, and eight-plus years in the US Senate, has honed his role as a rumpled anti-politician.
In a Brooklyn accent unabraded by decades in Vermont, Sanders called for making public colleges and universities tuition free; lowering interest rates on student debt; implementing single-payer health care; getting big money out of politics; taking bold action on climate change; rebuilding American infrastructure; increasing Social Security benefits for the economically vulnerable; ending hunger; and making top earners pay more in taxes.
Reciting a litany of statistics about economic inequality, Sanders then segued into a summation too affectless to be called a crescendo. “In my view, this issue of income and wealth inequality is the moral issue of our time, it is the economic issue of our time,” he said. “It is not what America is about. And together we have got to change that.”
But when a questioner turned the topic to Clinton, Sanders showed his political skill, using the query to underscore that she has yet to take a stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the details of which aren’t yet public.
“Hillary Clinton can be for the trade agreement — the president is. She can be against the trade agreement — I am, Elizabeth Warren and many others of us are. But I just don’t know how you don’t have an opinion on this enormously important issue.”
Note the framing: He and progressive political dream date Elizabeth Warren are opposed. That struck a chord with this crowd, whose feelings about Clinton ranged from dislike to a laodicean shrug.
Sanders clearly has a constituency here, and at a time when income inequality has moved his core concerns more into the mainstream, it’s not just the aging half-hip, half-hippie set or long-time lefty day-dreamers. Not judging from Wednesday’s event, anyway. And he’s offering a clear contrast to the cautious Clinton and her tightly scripted campaign.
Now, it’s hard to imagine the 73-year-old socialist winning the Democratic presidential nomination. But it’s not hard to see him becoming a send-a-message candidate — and thus turning into a more formidable Granite State rival to Clinton than anyone now imagines.