Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Clash Over Poetry and Prose

Hillary Clinton speaks at a town-hall meeting in Iowa. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Clash Over Poetry and Prose

"Here's the Senator's ad," Chris Cuomo, of CNN, said to Hillary Clinton, who was standing with him on the stage for a Democratic town-hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa.

"Here's the Senator's ad," Chris Cuomo, of CNN, said to Hillary Clinton, who was standing with him on the stage for a Democratic town-hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. There was a sudden jolt of music--Simon and Garfunkel's "America"--and scenes of Bernie Sanders speaking to large, happy crowds, with ecstatic young campaign workers high-fiving and embracing him, appeared on a large screen above them. Clinton, her smile shrinking, stood perfectly still, as if held in a tractor beam--or tractor Bern. When the clip finally ended, after a shot of Sanders waving his fist at a field of cheering supporters next to a bright blue lake, Cuomo turned to Clinton for a response.

"I think that's great!" she said. And then, with more feeling, "I think that's fabulous! I loved it." The audience applauded, and Clinton quickly pivoted to what was, for her, the key point of the evening. "You know, look, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. And we need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country. So, I applaud that! I love the feeling. I love the energy." She would, she said, just be "the better person" for the job of President. After a couple of weeks of scattershot attacks on Sanders, including suggestions that he would destroy the health-care system, Clinton is now trying out a two-fold message. First, there is fond but dismissive indulgence: Sanders, the poet from the woods of Vermont, should go back there while she heads to the White House and gets on with it. And second, his poems all sound the same: he is a one-issue candidate who just keeps talking about billionaires, while she has lots of issues. ("Not only economic inequality: racial inequality, sexist inequality, homophobic inequality ... education inequality, cultural inequality.")

Sanders, though, didn't quite cooperate on Monday night. He spoke first, followed by Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who spoke earnestly enough, and then Clinton. (The candidates each had a half hour to answer questions from Cuomo and undecided or "leaning" voters.) Sanders talked in a more varied register than he often has in speeches and debates. The format called for the candidates to sit cozily with Cuomo, a setup that lasted only until Sanders got to see his opponent's ad. "The world a President has to grapple with, sometimes you can't even imagine. That's the job. And she's prepared for it like no other," the narrator says. A montage follows of Clinton on darkened tarmacs and at foreign summits, and of protesters, gunmen, and what appeared to be an Asian stock-market board, resolving in the tag line, "Getting every part of the job done."

"This calls for a standing up response!" Sanders said. ("Don't leave! We have another fifteen minutes," Cuomo said in mock sternness as he, too, got out of his chair.) "All right, let me shock everybody here. ... I like Hillary Clinton and I respect Hillary Clinton." But he had some problems with what could be called the Hillary Clinton experience, not all of which had to do directly with Wall Street. "Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq." (Sanders opposed it, "And it gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared, in fact, happened.") "I led the effort against Wall Street deregulation. See where Hillary Clinton was on this issue." (With the billionaires as he saw it, though she doesn't.) "On day one, I said the Keystone Pipeline is a dumb idea." (Clinton, who opposes it now, has, at least, wavered.) "I didn't have to think hard about opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It took Hillary Clinton a long time to come on board that." (Similar to the pipeline.) "Experience is important, but it is not the only thing." (There was a reference to Dick Cheney.)

For Sanders, big money corrupting politics is the problem that prevents the solution of other problems, making inequality not so much a single issue as a meta-issue. But his most powerful moments on Monday were, for him, relatively billionaire-free. One came when he went over his record on reproductive rights and other issues of gender equality, as well as his support for Planned Parenthood ("a fantastic organization"), in response to a question from a young woman who was concerned about his less-than-generous response to the group's endorsement of Clinton. (He'd ascribed it to the influence of the "establishment.") "Chris, I'm trying to win her vote. Leave me alone here!" Sanders said, when Cuomo tried to get him to move on. The other involved his childhood. He'd played basketball--"My elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship." (Fact-checkers confirmed this.) Cuomo mentioned that Sanders's brother had said in an interview that their parents would have been proud of him, and Bernie became, for him, unusually quiet. "You know, Chris, this would be so unimaginable, the fact that I'm a United States senator would've been beyond really anything that they would have thought possible. The fact that I am running for President of the United States--you know, I do think about it and, you know, think they're very proud." Brooklyn: far from Wall Street, unless you know which subway to take.

By then, Cuomo had persuaded Sanders to sit down. But he had let something loose, and O'Malley and Clinton stood throughout their turns. Sanders tends to shape the behavior of the candidates around him, in part, perhaps, because he can be so unchanging (and Clinton so adaptable). In that sense, it was also an example of the positive effect that Sanders can have on Clinton: she was, for much of her half hour, more passionate and persuasive than she sometimes is in these settings. Her first voter question came from a young man who said he knew a lot of Sanders supporters and had "heard from quite a few people my age that they think you're dishonest."

"They throw all this stuff at me and I'm still standing," Clinton said. She had fought for health insurance even as big companies "spent millions. Not just against the issue, but against me. And I kept going.... So you got to keep going. You can't give up. You can never get knocked off course. That's my hope for you and for all the young people who are getting involved this first time. Don't get discouraged." It was, one might say, poetic.

She also spoke strongly and well in an exchange with a Muslim woman who was an Air Force veteran and was concerned about the Islamophobic rhetoric in the Republican Party. "It's dangerous, because American Muslims deserve better," Clinton said. But she got lost on a question about her e-mails and, oddly enough, when she was asked which President had most inspired her. She chose Lincoln, who, she said, had the Civil War to deal with, but who thought about railroads and land-grant colleges, too. "That's what I mean, when you've got to do a lot of things at once," she said. And Lincoln was "a real politician," who might have left the country less "rancorous" if he'd lived, because he was willing to "reconcile and forgive," she said. "But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant." It seems improbable that Clinton truly meant to suggest that Reconstruction was a destructive mistake, rather than a project systematically destroyed by white Southern domestic terrorism in the post-war years. Most likely, in an effort, perhaps, to pack Lincoln's life into the frame of her talking points, she had just got her sentences mangled. Lincoln, at any rate, had also offered examples of trying to govern with poetry.

When Clinton deployed the "campaign as poetry, govern as prose" line against the Sanders ad, it wasn't the first time she'd used it. She had cited it in January, 2008, when she struggled to make sense of the challenge from Barack Obama. President Obama himself had just used it in an interview with Glenn Thrush, of Politico, released earlier in the day, in which he'd said of Hillary, "Her strengths, which are the fact that she's extraordinarily experienced--and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out--sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths." Cuomo had begun his exchange with Clinton by quoting only the bit inside the dashes, about her smarts and policy knowledge, and then saying, "sounds like an endorsement." It wasn't, though, not yet. Obama also praised Sanders, who, he said, "has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless." And Obama actually pushed back when Thrush seemed to seize too much on the idealism-practicality divide, saying, "Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans' Committee and got bills done."

Clinton had also used the campaign poetry-governing prose line earlier in the town hall, taking care to attribute it to the moderator's father, Mario Cuomo, the late, former governor of New York. She had recited it when answering a question about what she would say to Republicans after being elected. "You know, you can say all the kinds of things you want in a campaign," Clinton said. "But, once the election is over we must come together to work to solve the problems facing our country." Her point appeared to be that, in the name of governing, she could brush aside the ugly things that have been said about her. But what might it mean if the language of campaigning--which is also the language of political participation--comes to seem almost entirely empty? Is that anyone's definition of poetry?

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