â€œHereâ€™s the Senatorâ€™s ad,â€ 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 musicâ€”Simon and Garfunkelâ€™s â€œAmericaâ€â€”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,Â stood perfectly still, as if held in a tractor beamâ€”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.
â€œI think thatâ€™s great!â€ she said. And then, with more feeling, â€œI think thatâ€™s fabulous! I loved it.â€ The audience applauded, and Clinton quickly pivoted to what was, for her, the key point of the evening. â€œYou know, look, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.Â And we need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country.Â So, I applaud that!Â I love the feeling. I love the energy.â€ She would, she said, just be â€œthe better personâ€ for the job of President. After a couple of weeks of scattershot attacks on Sanders, including suggestionsÂ 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,Â 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. (â€œNot only economic inequality: racial inequality, sexist inequality, homophobic inequality â€¦ education inequality, cultural inequality.â€)
Sanders, though, didnâ€™t quite coÃ¶perate on Monday night. He spoke first, followed by Martin Oâ€™Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who spoke earnestly enough, and then Clinton. (The candidatesÂ each had a half hour to answer questions from Cuomo and undecided or â€œleaningâ€ 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 opponentâ€™s ad. â€œThe world a President has to grapple with, sometimes you canâ€™t even imagine. Thatâ€™s the job. And sheâ€™s prepared for it like no other,â€ 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, â€œGetting every part of the job done.â€
â€œThis calls for a standing up response!â€ Sanders said. (â€œDonâ€™t leave! We have another fifteen minutes,â€ Cuomo said in mock sternness as he, too, got out of his chair.) â€œAll right, let me shock everybody here. â€¦ I like Hillary Clinton and I respect Hillary Clinton.â€ 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. â€œHillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq.â€ (Sanders opposed it, â€œAnd it gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared, in fact, happened.â€) â€œI led the effort against Wall Street deregulation.Â See where Hillary Clinton was on this issue.â€ (With the billionaires as he saw it, though she doesnâ€™t.) â€œOn day one, I said the Keystone Pipeline is a dumb idea.â€ (Clinton, who opposes it now, has, at least, wavered.) â€œI didnâ€™t have to think hard about opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It took Hillary Clinton a long time to come on board that.â€ (Similar to the pipeline.) â€œExperience is important, but it is not the only thing.â€ (There was a reference to Dick Cheney.)
For Sanders,Â 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, relativelyÂ 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 (â€œa fantastic organizationâ€), in response to a question from a young woman who was concerned about his less-than-generous response to the groupâ€™s endorsement of Clinton. (Heâ€™d ascribed it to the influence of the â€œestablishment.â€) â€œChris, Iâ€™m trying to win her vote. Leave me alone here!â€ Sanders said, when Cuomo tried to get him to move on. The other involved his childhood.Â Heâ€™d played basketballâ€”â€œMy elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship.â€ (Fact-checkers confirmed this.) Cuomo mentioned that Sandersâ€™s brother had said in an interview that their parents would have been proud of him, and Bernie became, for him, unusually quiet. â€œYou know, Chris, this would be so unimaginable, the fact that Iâ€™m a United States senator wouldâ€™ve been beyond really anything that they would have thought possible.Â The fact that I am running for President of the United Statesâ€”you know, I do think about it and, you know, think theyâ€™re very proud.â€ 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 Oâ€™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 â€œheard from quite a few people my age that they think youâ€™re dishonest.â€
â€œThey throw all this stuff at me and Iâ€™m still standing,â€ Clinton said. She had fought for health insurance even as big companies â€œspent millions.Â Not just against the issue, but against me.Â And I kept goingâ€¦. So you got to keep going.Â You canâ€™t give up.Â You can never get knocked off course. Thatâ€™s my hope for you and for all the young people who are getting involved this first time. Donâ€™t get discouraged.â€ 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. â€œItâ€™s dangerous, because American Muslims deserve better,â€ 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.Â She chose Lincoln, who, she said, had the Civil War to deal with, but who thought about railroads and land-grant colleges, too. â€œThatâ€™s what I mean, when youâ€™ve got to do a lot of things at once,â€ she said. And Lincoln was â€œa real politician,â€ who might have left the country less â€œrancorousâ€ if heâ€™d lived, because he was willing to â€œreconcile and forgive,â€ she said. â€œBut instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.Â We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.â€Â 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,Â to pack Lincolnâ€™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 â€œcampaign as poetry, govern as proseâ€ line against the Sanders ad, it wasnâ€™t the first time sheâ€™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 heâ€™d said of Hillary, â€œHer strengths, which are the fact that sheâ€™s extraordinarily experiencedâ€”and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and outâ€”sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths.â€ Cuomo had begun his exchange with Clinton by quoting only the bit inside the dashes, about her smarts and policy knowledge, and then saying, â€œsounds like an endorsement.â€ It wasnâ€™t, though, not yet. Obama also praised Sanders, who, he said, â€œhas the virtue of saying exactly what he believes, and great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless.â€ And Obama actually pushed back when Thrush seemed to seize too much on the idealism-practicality divide, saying, â€œBernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veteransâ€™ Committee and got bills done.â€
Clinton had also used the campaign poetry-governing prose line earlier in the town hall, taking care to attribute it to the moderatorâ€™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. â€œYou know, you can say all the kinds of things you want in a campaign,â€ Clinton said. â€œBut, once the election is over we must come together to work to solve the problems facing our country.â€ 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 campaigningâ€”which is also the language of political participationâ€”comes to seem almost entirely empty? Is that anyoneâ€™s definition of poetry?