A Worthwhile Hillary Initiative to End Washington Gridlock

In new book, Democratic ticket veers center, refrains from utopian promises

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine's compendium of policy proposals is designed to show the seriousness of the Democratic presidential ticket, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine's compendium of policy proposals is designed to show the seriousness of the Democratic presidential ticket, writes Walter Shapiro. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2016 at 1:22pm

In the kingdom of clicks, there are few sets of words more self-defeating than the combination of “Hillary Clinton” and “policy.”

If you must write about the Democratic nominee, then the smartest strategy is either to decry the Clinton scandals as the worst since Teapot Dome or to attack the news media for equating Hillary’s missteps with the outrages and lies of Donald Trump. But to actually discuss Clinton’s policy agenda is to invite comparisons with what columnist Michael Kinsley once dubbed as the most boring headline in history: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.

Despite her dwindling lead in recent polls, Hillary remains the odds-on favorite to deliver an inaugural address next Jan. 20. And while Clinton’s policy agenda will never be described as click-bait, it is apt to shape the way that America is governed between now and the 2020 election.

This week in a nostalgic nod to the era when ill-informed former reality show hosts didn’t run for president, Hillary published a book so retro that its target audience might as well be Brooklyn hipsters who collect vinyl records. Entitled “Stronger Together” and sharing a cover byline with Tim Kaine, the volume is a 256-page compendium of policy proposals.

The inspiration was “Putting People First,” Bill Clinton and Al Gore’s 1992 trade paperback designed to portray the youthful Democratic ticket as policy visionaries. As a result of Clinton and Gore’s political need to establish gravitas, “Putting People First” often read like the outtakes from a marathon State of the Union address.

Twenty-four pages longer than the 1992 original, “Stronger Together” is a more spritely volume. Okay, no one is going to eagerly devour sentences like, “We will explore further options to encourage employers to help pay down student debt.” But unlike many political issue papers, “Stronger Together” reads like it was written by campaign staffers who struggled to be thematic and were acquainted with standard English.

[What Beach-Blanket Voters Tuned Out in August]

As in 1992, the political motivation is obvious — contrasting the seriousness of the Democratic ticket with the shoot-from-the-lip pronouncements of Trump. The Associated Press calculated that all the policy proposals on the Trump campaign website weigh in at a modest 9,000 words. And some of these notions have only a tangential connection to reality: “Mexico must pay for the wall.”

What is revealing about “Stronger Together” is how modest the authors are compared to prior out-of-power Democratic nominees. After an introductory statement on the success of the recovery under Barack Obama, they declare, “We have more work to do. But we won’t be satisfied with the status quo — not by a long shot.”

There is a doth-protest-too-much quality to this disdain for the status quo. Especially since the Democratic ticket refrains from clarion calls for vast new federal entitlements. In fact, the first topic discussed in detail in “Stronger Together” — rebuilding the infrastructure — represents a rare point of potential bipartisan consensus.

Even the remnants of the tea party movement would probably find little to complain about in a Clinton-Kaine pledge on Page 17 to eliminate choke points of commerce, such as antiquated rail systems that require freight trains to spend up to 30 hours to cross Chicago. Or after the crisis in Flint, Michigan, to invest in rebuilding the nation’s drinking water systems.

Unlike a frustrated Obama in his final year in the White House, Hillary Clinton displays little interest in governing by executive order. Most of the proposals in “Stronger Together” require the assent of Congress. Which means, barring a Democratic landslide, negotiating with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

That may explain why the most ambitious proposals in “Stronger Together” are symbolic nods to the legacy of Bernie Sanders. In the health care section, the Democratic ticket pledges to “support a public option to broaden choices — and let people over 55 buy into Medicare.”

Such changes would require a major expansion of Obamacare, which is about as likely as congressional Republicans embracing a special excise tax aimed at the Koch Brothers. But it is telling that the authors of “Stronger Together” signal that their goal is merely aspirational. When you read closely, you discover that all Clinton and Kaine are promising is “to pursue efforts” to achieve it.

[An Acceptance Speech for the Polls Rather Than the Ages]

Toward the end of “Stronger Together,” there is a moment of realism rarely glimpsed in political books: “If you have read this (and thank you for that!), you’re probably thinking, well, that all sounds pretty good, but how are you going to get it done?”

Unfortunately, the answer soon gets caught up in boilerplate rhetoric about repealing the Citizens United decision. But there is something to be said — especially against the backdrop of Trump hyperbole — about a presidential ticket that describes its governing agenda as “pretty good.”

Maybe by veering toward the center and refraining from utopian promises, Hillary Clinton — in her methodical and, yes, boring way — may have found a formula for ending gridlock in Washington.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.