Hillary Tries On The Vision Thing

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a campaign stop and speech in Los Angeles, California, United St
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton makes a campaign stop and speech in Los Angeles, California, United States June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

When Vice President George H.W. Bush ran for president in 1987, a comment he reportedly made came to symbolize his core weakness as a candidate. Bush, who was known for having a great grasp of complex issues, was advised to spend a few days in the quiet of Camp David, "to figure out where he wanted to take the country." Exasperated, Bush replied, "Oh, the vision thing."

This time it's the Democratic candidate for president who has been challenged by the vision thing. But in her victory speech on Tuesday, Clinton offered a coherent vision for the first time. It is a vision that, while grounded in her core beliefs, deliberately incorporates key elements of the story Bernie Sanders has been telling.

A vision is propelled by a story -- what's wrong, who is responsible, and what we
can do to fix it. Trump's story is simple: what's wrong is that our jobs were taken away by trade deals and immigrants and that we are not respected around the world. Politicians who made bad trade deals, let immigrants into the country and allowed us to be pushed around are responsible. He'll make America great again by standing up to China, building a wall and wiping out ISIS.

Bernie Sanders has a vision propelled by a simple story too. Americans face stagnant wages and bleak futures because billionaires control our money and politics. His vision is creating a popular, democratic revolution to take power and wealth away from the super-rich so that America work for all of us, not just the billionaires.

And Clinton? She has failed to tell Americans what's wrong, who's responsible and how we build a future. More than half of Clinton's stump speech -- a typical example is a campaign appearance Riverside California on May 24 - was an attack on Trump's character. The rest of the speech was a laundry list of issues and bragging about her experience.

What was missing: any acknowledgement, let alone explanation, of the crisis of confidence that so many Americans have in their own security or in a better future for their children. Any mention of who or what forces are responsible for that. Trump was the only villain. She did not provide any framework for moving to the future. No story, no vision.

By contrast, her speech last night celebrating her securing the Democratic nomination was almost all vision, tied together under the banner "Stronger Together". She laid out a vision of a country united by a "common purpose," in which -- using one of her husband's favorite themes -- "we are all in this together."

Clinton's story is that Americans "feel like you're out there on your own," because "Wall Street" and "the power brokers" have too much economic and political power. She lambasted Donald Trump and others for trying to divide us, particularly by race, but also by religion, sexual orientation and economic status. Her solution is to "respect each other, listen to each other and act with a sense of common purpose."

Clinton instinctively shrinks from naming villains or doing anything that she would view as dividing people. Her core belief is that "cooperation is better than conflict, unity is better than division, empowerment is better than resentment and bridges are better than walls. It's a simple and powerful idea. We believe we are stronger together."

But she is now also incorporating elements of Sanders story into her own, as when she names "Wall Street" and "powerbrokers" as villains. In an important recital of Sanders' message, she declares, "We're stronger when our economy works for everyone, not just those at the top."

As encouraging as it is to see Clinton start to embrace "the vision thing," big questions remain. One is whether she will revert back to attacks on Trump and laundry lists of policies. She's given primary victory speeches before that laid out a similar vision, only to abandon those themes on the stump.

A second question is whether people will trust her and find her vision compelling. Saying that people "feel left behind" is far from recognizing deep economic insecurity. Her tendency to quickly back away from assigning blame, even "to those with the most wealth and most power," makes people doubt that she really will stand up for them -- no matter how often she declares "I will always have your back."

Unlike George H.W. Bush, Clinton needs to embrace "the vision thing." She needs to overcome both her policy wonk self and her "kumbaya" self. And she can't just do that when she's taking on Trump. That may be enough to win the election, if only because the Trump vision is a nightmare for a majority of Americans. But it won't be enough to come into office with a mandate to actually get anything done. For that she must embrace a story about an America that can only be stronger together when it really takes on "those with the most wealth and the most power."