Yes, on some level, they’re basic PR fluff. But they also go a long way toward explaining the fundamental divide between Republicans and Democrats today — and the contours of the election campaign to come.
First, and most obvious, is the demographic divide.
If there is one thing missing from Clinton’s announcement video, it’s white men. Of course, I’m exaggerating. The video, after all, does show two white men . . . holding hands and talking about their impending marriage.
There’s also a young Asian female college graduate, a single mom, two Hispanic entrepreneurs (speaking Spanish, no less), an African-American couple excitedly awaiting a first child, a lesbian couple, an interracial couple, and lots and lots of women. Thirty years ago, Jesse Jackson talked about a Rainbow Coalition; today, that coalition is powerful enough to be worthy of naked political pandering.
Then again, pandering is really just another word for a pragmatic understanding of the changing American electorate. In 2012, Barack Obama lost white voters by 20 points to Mitt Romney. Yet he still won the election by a fairly comfortable 4-point margin.
He did so by winning 93 percent of the African-American vote, 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, and a majority of female voters. That coalition amounted to nearly a quarter of the electorate. By 2016, it will likely be even larger. Obama dominated among voters in their teens and 20s, female voters, and voters making less than $50,000. These are the sources of Democratic strength on the presidential level. It’s why Clinton’s campaign video looked like a Benetton ad — and why its most discernible message was that she would be a “champion” for “everyday Americans.”
That leads to the other clear dividing line — the choice of populist bogeyman. In Clinton’s vernacular, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top,” which is a rather obvious reference to Wall Street and the proverbial 1 percent.
For Ted Cruz, “the real divide” in America is between Washington and the rest of us. For Rand Paul, it’s the people versus the “career politicians,” failed “liberal policies,” and “business as usual” that emanates from Washington.
We already saw these battle lines in 2012, but if the first few weeks of campaign 2016 are any indication, this election is going to be all about antigovernment populism versus old-fashioned economic populism.
Nowhere is this division more starkly drawn than in the issues Clinton, Paul, and Cruz chose to highlight. Clinton’s video is heavy on symbolism, but clearly hints at social issues like gay marriage and immigration. It references early childhood education and the challenges faced by working parents, retirees, recent college grads, and budding entrepreneurs. What’s even more interesting is what goes unmentioned: The former secretary of state has nothing to say about foreign policy.
The Republicans touch on world affairs, but in ways clearly targeted at conservative voters; there’s a brief shot of Cruz shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What they don’t present is a positive agenda for governing, outside the vaguest of platitudes. “I believe we can stand up and restore our promise,” Cruz says.
Paul talks about imposing term limits on Congress and forcing members to “read every bill.” He throws out some conservative economic chestnuts, such as balancing the budget and creating a “simple, fair” tax system.
Cruz’s focus is equally guaranteed to set Republican hearts aflutter. He dwells on his “historic battle” to defund Obamacare, his efforts to take on the IRS, and his fight against both a debt limit increase and President Obama’s “illegal and unconstitutional amnesty.”
That creates the final irony of the 2016 race so far. Clinton, the former member of the Obama administration, would seem likely to be the politician most caught in the president’s shadow.
But if anything, it’s the Republicans who are still fighting the same old fights.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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