Bernie Sanders: Gun Nut – Or Politician?

Is Bernie Sanders a “gun nut”?

As the Vermont Senator’s political stock gains ground, buoyed by rising polling support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, journalists and pundits are beginning to look more closely at his record on the issues. For many progressives, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this element of Sanders’ candidacy is what they view as his lukewarm record on gun control. Echoing the sentiment of many progressive, the Slate’s Mark Steyn recently blasted Bernie on this issue in a blistering online critique: “[B]efore liberal Democrats flock to Sanders, they should remember that the Vermont senator stands firmly to Clinton’s right on one issue of overwhelming importance to the Democratic base: gun control. During his time in Congress, Sanders opposed several moderate gun control bills. He also supported the most odious NRA–backed law in recent memory—one that may block Sandy Hook families from winning a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the gun used to massacre their children.” As Steyn points out, in 1993 then-Representative Sanders opposed the Brady bill which proposed federal background checks for gun purchasers and restrictions on felons’ ability to own guns. Bernie’s voting record on gun control has also come under attack by groups backing Bernie’s Democratic rivals, including this attack ad aired by the pro-Martin O’Malley Super Pac Generation Forward:

But Bernie’s defenders point out that in recent years he has taken a stronger stance on gun control, including voting for expanded background checks on gun buyers and for a ban on assault weapon in the aftermath of the Newtown school shooting.  The truth, however, as this Politifact story makes clear, is that while Bernie may not be the NRA’s poster child for the Second Amendment rights, neither has he been in the vanguard of gun control.  And while progressives find this troubling, conservative pundits – while no fan of Bernie’s – are finding progressive discomfiture on this issue more than a little amusing.

Taken as a whole, Bernie’s record on this issue is, as Steyn suggests, more conservative than that of his main Democratic presidential candidates with the exception of former Virginia Senator James Webb. Why would a candidate who is staking his campaign on progressive reform be so soft on gun control? The simplest explanation, as my Middlebury colleague Bert Johnson argues, is that, like it or not, Bernie is representing the preferences of a good number of his Vermont constituents. As Johnson notes in his comments to Politifact in its review of Bernie’s record on guns, “As a rural state with a large number of hunters and other gun owners, Vermont has been less liberal on guns than on most other issues, historically…[Sanders] seems to support more regulation of guns than the U.S. presently has, but he recognizes his constituents’ preferences so does not make gun control a priority.”

For the Prius-driving, urban-dwelling, tree-hugging, Chablis-drinking secular humanists among you, it might be difficult to fathom why a former Socialist mayor of Burlington representing possibly the most liberal state in nation could care very much about the political preferences of a group of knuckle-dragging goose-stepping paramilitary neo-Nazi gun owners. But the reality is that those who own guns in Vermont, while predominantly conservative in outlook, are nonetheless a somewhat diverse and, perhaps more importantly, rather substantial group of voters. In 2014, as part of her senior honors thesis, Middlebury College student Brianna Morse surveyed a representative sample of Vermonters to see how many owned guns, and why. Morse found that a substantial number – about 42% – of Vermont adults indicated they owned guns, a total consistent with what other sources have shown. Needless to say, this is a potentially sizable voting bloc.  It is true that gun ownership in Vermont is positively correlated with a more conservative political ideology; Morse found that for every unit increase on a seven-point ideological self-placement scale (from extremely liberal to extremely conservative), the odds of gun ownership increase by 1.2, controlling for education, ideology and income. (Ideology did not seem to affect the number or types of gun owned, however.) Gender also influenced gun ownership, with males five times more likely than females to own a gun, again controlling for socioeconomic status. Interestingly, in contrast to the prevailing media stereotype, higher levels of education also had a statistically significant and positive relationship with gun ownership; Morse found that for every increase in the level of education the odds of a respondent owning a gun increase slightly as well (although more educated individuals were less likely to own multiple guns.) Neither income nor age seemed related to gun ownership, however.

When asked their motivations for owning a gun, respondents gave multiple reasons, but the most popular answer was for hunting. While liberal gun owners were most likely to cite target practice or skeet shooting as a reason for owning a gun, 42% of conservatives cited hunting most frequently, followed by 25% of conservatives citing their Second Amendment rights as the second most popular response. (Morse speculates that liberals are more squeamish than conservatives in shooting living creatures.) This compares to only 6% of liberals and 13% of moderates who listed the Second Amendment as a motivation for owning a gun. (Morse’s survey allowed respondents to cite more than one motivation for gun ownership.) In looking at these descriptive statistics, Morse suggests that, “Conservatives place a higher importance upon the acknowledgement of their rights as a citizen in the decision to own a gun than liberals or moderates… .” But she cautions that because of multiple responses combined with low response numbers for some categories, it is difficult to attribute a primary motivation for gun ownership among Vermonters with any degree of statistical confidence.

Viewed from the perspective of constituent preferences, Bernie’s ambivalence toward stricter gun control legislation is politically pragmatic, even if it seems to clash with his more progressive ideological outlook on other issues. But how will this play at the national level among Democrats? It is doubtful that Clinton or other Democrats are going to make this much of an issue, at least in the early going. The percentage of gun owners in Iowa, at about 42% of voting-age adults, rivals that of Vermont, and New Hampshire’s proportion, while lower at about 30%, is still substantial. Yes, these aren’t necessarily predominantly Democratic voters, but why take a chance on alienating a politically active group of voters? Nationally, support for more stringent gun control has been lukewarm at best, except for brief fluctuations in the aftermath of highly publicized shootings such as Newtown, and it ranks quite low among the issues that concern most Americans. If Bernie is going to lose this race for the Democratic nomination, it is highly doubtful that his stance on guns will be the issue that takes him down.  Most progressives, I suspect, will be willing to look past what they will likely view as an anomaly in Sanders’ record.

Bernie Sanders. He’s not a gun nut. He’s a politician.

The Least Dangerous Branch? The Court and Same-Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court’s historic decision yesterday in Obergefell v. Hodges to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states illustrates a point my students have heard me make for many years: the Court is a fundamentally political institution, one whose members are deeply concerned about maintaining its independence and legitimacy.  The result, as the Obergefell decision reminds us, is that the Court will rarely allow itself to get out in front, or fall very much behind, prevailing public opinion.

We can see this quite clearly by tracking the Court’s decision in a series of cases regarding gay rights, from Bowers v. Hardwick  through the Romer, Lawrence and Windsor cases and culminating in the decision announced yesterday in Obergefell v. Hodges. Viewed chronologically, the cases trace a steady progression in the evolution of Court doctrine, from upholding a Georgia law in 1986 criminalizing sodomy to yesterday’s landmark ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.

In this regard, many observers likened yesterday’s decision to the Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board that outlawed segregated public school systems. But the reality is that, as Gerald Rosenberg persuasively argues, the Brown decision did little by itself to move public school desegregation forward. More generally, Rosenberg argues, in the absence of broad-based political support and legislative action by Congress, the Court is a poor vehicle for enacting social change. And, in fact, the evidence suggests that it wasn’t until passage by Congress of the 1964 Civil Rights and the 1965 Voting Rights acts that the barriers to racial discrimination began to fall.

Indeed, more often than not we have seen instances of the Court acting on behalf of temporary majorities, often during wartime, to curtail civil rights and liberties of minority groups, rather than protecting them.  More generally, as Robert Dahl first posited in his famous 1957 article, as a political actor the Court’s rulings tend to owe more to prevailing political opinion than to careful legal reasoning based on the Constitution and statute.

Why is the Court so responsive to majority public opinion? Dahl posited an indirect relationship, in which presidents and members of the Senate who are elected by – and thus are responsive to – public opinion choose judges who share their political preferences. Through this means the Court tends to be composed of justices whose views are not likely to be too far out of step with the mainstream. Other scholars have argued that the relationship is more direct, with individual justices actually responding directly to public opinion.  Whatever the mechanism and motivation, however, this line of reasoning suggests that the evolution of Court doctrine regarding gay marriage is not an instance of the Court bucking majority opinion to protect the rights of a minority class, but in fact is characteristic of how the Court’s legal interpretations respond to evolving social norms more generally. In this respect, Chief Justice Roberts is right – yesterday’s decision was not about the Constitution, at least not directly. As Dahl writes, “[T]he court cannot act strictly as a legal institution. It must… choose among controversial alternatives of public policy by appealing to at least some criteria on questions of fact and value that cannot be found in or deduced from precedent, statute and the Constitution.” And so it seems to be with the Court’s evolving rulings regarding gay rights – an evolution that seems driven not by legal precedent or doctrine so much as by changing public mores.

My interpretation may prove troubling to those who believe the Court’s function in the Madisonian system of shared powers is not to be a democratic institution, but instead is to check the excesses of legislative majorities. On the other hand, it may comfort those (like Chief Justice Roberts!) who complain that the Court is too willing to issue rulings on controversial matters that are better left to the people to resolve, working through their elected representatives. My response is that in most instances, the Court interjects itself into debates only when it is reasonably persuaded that public opinion has begun to crystallize. When it comes to gay marriage, the reality is that there has been a sea change in attitudes since Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, so that by the time the Court issued its ruling yesterday, it was increasingly hard to argue, as the four justices in the minority in yesterday’s decision would have us believe, that the Court decision short-circuited an ongoing debate.  Instead, as Scalia foresaw back in 2003 in his dissent in the Lawrence case, the Court’s ruling then striking down the Texas anti-sodomy law practically guaranteed that it would find a constitutional basis for same-sex marriage sooner or later. But it would be another decade before the Court, finally persuaded regarding the direction of public opinion, chose to take that historic step.  It did so in concert with evolving public opinion on the matter, as reflected in this Pew chart.

It indicates a dramatic growth across all generations during the last decade in support for same-sex marriage. Indeed, 37 states and the District of Columbia had already ratified same sex marriage prior to yesterday’s ruling.  If the Court hoped to get on the train of public opinion before it left the station, yesterday’s ruling was almost inevitable.

As is often the case, then, the Court’s intervention into a political debate did not likely change the outcome so much as provide constitutional cover for a result toward which the national conversation was already headed. In so doing, it insured that the Court would remain a relevant political player, but not in a way that jeopardized its legitimacy to articulate bedrock values. To be sure, providing a legal foundation to justify and explain a political outcome is not an insignificant role – by providing a constitutional imprimatur, it puts popular sentiment on a more enduring basis. But a process that ratifies a democratic outcome, rather than determines it, is also less controversial, and perhaps more reassuring, to those who worry about the Court’s anti-democratic tendencies. In instances in which it lacks strong popular support, conversely, the Court is not likely to move social policy on its own. While not the sign of “the least dangerous branch”, it does suggest it is not nearly as threatening as its harshest critics contend in the aftermath of yesterday’s decision. In this respect, I think Dahl had it correct when he concluded his study of the Court by writing, “[I]t is doubtful that the fundamental conditions of liberty in this country have been altered by more than a hair’s breadth as a result of these [Court] decisions. However, let us give the Court its due: it is little enough.” So it is.

Keeping Up With The Real Jindals of Louisiana!

Apropos my piece yesterday at U.S. News exploring why so many Republicans are running for president,  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has announced that he too is seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency. That makes a baker’s dozen Republican candidates so far, with Scott Walker likely to formally join in the next few days as well. Jindal’s announcement, while not unexpected, was at least somewhat original – he released this video showing him revealing the news to his three kids (hat tip to Middlebury grad Charlie Kunze for alerting me to this). Here’s Jindal’s family coming-out event:

As you can see, the three kids seem completely unsurprised by their parents’ announcement. The only question one of them asks is when the decision will be made public. Their even-keeled reaction reminded me of how the Kardashian kids must have responded when Bruce finally said he was really a “she”. Really, how much surprise was left after you found out he loved wearing Spanx? Similarly, the Jindal kids seem so unfazed by their father’s career move that he is forced to try to elicit some reaction by asking them if they are excited to go to Iowa, site of the first-in-the-nation caucus. Not surprisingly, the question fell a bit short of eliciting a collective “Let’s Go Hawkeyes!” I mean, this is Iowa – not Disneyworld. What did he expect them to say? “I can’t wait to see some cornfields, Dad!”

Jindal’s effort to drum up some publicity via this unorthodox announcement demonstrates both the attraction and the difficulty of campaigning in the era of reality television and social media-driven political coverage. The video was an attempt to portray the Jindals at home, interacting spontaneously in an intimate setting, just like a “normal” family. Why, they could have been any American family, with loving parents discussing with the kids whether Dad should pursue a new job.   Except what normal family places a camera above the family table and sends the resulting video out to a national audience? It was hard not to view the kids as props in still another made-for-reality-television event. But if Jindal really wanted to make this work, he needed to steal a page from those other reality shows by going all in to make this a truly memorable event.  Had I staged the event, I would have had the kids react to Jindal’s announcement by running from the room screaming, “You’ve ruined our lives – I hate you Dad!” Then Ms. Jindal would tell Bobby she had fallen in love with the pool boy and was seeking a divorce.  Now that would be a video destined to go viral!

This is not the first time Jindal has potentially botched a first impression with a national audience. In February 2009, in recognition that he was a rising Republican star, Jindal was tapped to deliver the official Republican response to President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. Alas, Jindal’s speech received less than stellar reviews in comparison to the President’s. As I noted in my blog post at the time, Jindal’s speech suffered from a poorly-chosen location: “Now compare the backdrop to a State of the Union (or equivalent) address to where poor Bobby Jindal gave his speech. He looked like he was standing in the hallway of his house. I fully expected Ms. Jindal to call him to take out the trash midway through the talk.”  I also noted, however, that Jindal’s widely-panned speech was unlikely to have much impact on his political career. And, in fact, he was easily reelected to a second term as Louisiana governor. Similarly, I doubt yesterday’s rollout, no matter what you think of it, is going to influence Jindal’s presidential electoral fortunes very much. As it is, as more than one media pundit pointed out, he faces an uphill climb in an already crowded Republican field.’s weighted average of polls currently places Jindal 15th among 16 Republicans, with only former New York Governor George Pataki polling less than Jindal’s .7%.

But no matter. Hope springs eternal. Jindal has made a career of bucking expectations. In addition to his low-tax, small government credentials, he has staked out conservative positions on a number of social issues by, for example, opposing gay marriage – positions that should play well with a segment of the Republican base. And, as the only sitting Governor in the race he is likely to try to capitalize by contrasting his own record of accomplishments in Louisiana against the legislative gridlock and partisan bickering that characterizes Washington, DC politics. He is also likely going to use his roots as the Louisiana-born son of Indian immigrants to bolster his case that immigrants should be encouraged to adopt American political ideals – another position that plays well with Republicans.   Finally, I expect him to take a very hawkish line on foreign policy. It remains to be seen, of course, whether he can recapture the magic that made him a rising star among Republicans, one noted for his policy wonkishness, several years back. For what it is worth, most of the media coverage surrounding his announcement noted his low poll standings and described his candidacy as an uphill, long shot effort to break through.  As I’ve noted many times before, when the media pegs you as a second-tier candidate, it becomes very difficult to climb your way to first-tier status.

But for now, the Jindals are off to Iowa! I envision the car ride going something like this:

The Jindals’ run for the Presidency: It’s not a vacation.  It’s a quest.


Why I’m Telling The Donald: You’re Hired!

My students (and their parents) as well as long-time readers of this blog know by now that I don’t vote in national elections. As I’ve explained (and as George Stephanopoulos recently reminded us) my reason for not voting is that I don’t want my readers to view me as simply another partisan pundit trumpeting the party line under the guise of “independent” analysis. (It’s also irrational at the individual level to vote, but that’s an argument for another day.)

But I’m here to tell you that I’m breaking my pledge this election cycle. I’m voting for The Donald. And I think if you watch his announcement, you’ll vote for him too.

If you can’t make it through the entire video, let me just point out the highlights as a way of justifying my decision. It was a sprawling presentation (much like The Donald’s real estate empire, or his marriages) and he covered an astonishing array of topics in just this one event, and did so with a degree of confidence and creativity that is hard to convey without watching the video. But I will give it my best shot.  You expect no less, I know.

Let me begin with his stances on the important issues of the day. Obviously, we want a president who knows what he’s doing. Well, it’s hard to exaggerate the number of policies on which he can speak knowledgeably and in depth, but let’s be clear – by the end of this speech The Donald left no doubt about how he would solve some of the most pressing problems facing the country today. He would do it The Donald way.

Take illegal immigration, especially from Mexico. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The Donald would build a very big, inexpensive wall. And, guess who will pay for that wall? Not the American taxpayers! “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” You heard that right. Mexico will pay for the wall! And, by the way, The Donald will immediately “terminate President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration.”

Gun control? The Donald will “fully support and back up the Second Amendment.” As he noted, if you live near the Clinton correction facility in upstate New York, the site of a recent breakout by two murderers, those area residents with guns are certainly sleeping better right now, particularly since law enforcement has no clue where the escapees are. Indeed, The Donald recently talked to a resident there who told him, “We now have a gun on every table. We’re ready to start shooting.” (Note also that the prison is named “Clinton” – I hadn’t realized the significance of this until The Donald pointed it out. Think about it.)

Obamacare? “You have to be hit by a tractor, literally, a tractor, to use it, because the deductibles are so high, it’s virtually useless.” The Donald would repeal it, along with its $5 billion, nonfunctional website. The Donald has many websites – “They are all over the place” – but he pays his people $3 – not $5 billion – to create one. Which would you rather have? A three-dollar website, or a $5 billion dollar one? And what would he replace Obamacare with? Something “much better and much less expensive for people and for the government.” How can you oppose that policy? I know I can’t.

Defeating ISIS? “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. Nobody. I will find — within our military, I will find the General Patton or I will find General MacArthur, I will find the right guy.”

Ending Iran’s nuclear program? “I will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. And we won’t be using a man like Secretary Kerry that has absolutely no concept of negotiation, who’s making a horrible and laughable deal, who’s just being tapped along as they make weapons right now, and then goes into a bicycle race at 72 years old, and falls and breaks his leg. I won’t be doing that. And I promise I will never be in a bicycle race. That I can tell you.” I believe The Donald when he says he will end Iran’s nuclear program and that he won’t be in a bicycle race. After all, this is a man who wrote, “The Art of the Deal”.

Repairing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure? “Nobody can do that like me. Believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below cost, way below what anyone ever thought. I look at the roads being built all over the country, and I say I can build those things for one-third.” One-third the cost! Who could oppose that? Not me!

Reforming entitlement programs? The Donald would “Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts…Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse, but save it.” Why haven’t our current politicians thought of this?

Free trade? The Donald is for free trade, but the key is who is doing the trading. “Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid.” You can be sure The Donald will hire only smart people, and will get rid of the stupid ones. Stupid people, you’re fired!

Exporting jobs overseas? The Donald would bring the U.S. executives responsible for shipping jobs abroad into the Oval Office and make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Consider the executive who recently set up a Ford plant in Mexico. Here is what The Donald would say to that unfortunate executive: “Congratulations. That’s the good news. Let me give you the bad news. Every car and every truck and every part manufactured in this plant that comes across the border, we’re going to charge you a 35-percent tax, and that tax is going to be paid simultaneously with the transaction, and that’s it.” How will the Ford executive respond? This is how: “‘Please, please, please.’ He’ll beg for a little while, and I’ll say, ‘No interest.’ Then he’ll call all sorts of political people, and I’ll say, ‘Sorry, fellas. No interest,’ because I don’t need anybody’s money. It’s nice. I don’t need anybody’s money. I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”

That’s right. We all know that The Donald is a great man. But the key to his presidency will be that he is really rich. He has a net worth of $8,737,540,00. That’s billions of dollars. I know because he said so. This means that unlike other politicians, he’s not in it for the money. His campaign isn’t some gambit designed to boost the ratings of his television show, or to feed his own ego. No, The Donald can’t be bought and he is already a great man. He is doing this for us. That is why he will be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” He told us that, and I believe him. After all, he is a man who has declared bankruptcy on multiple occasions! How many times have his opponents declared bankruptcy? What do they know about running up excessive debt and not being able to pay bills? How can they possibly understand the American experience like The Donald can?

But beyond his fabulous wealth, his golf courses, convention centers and magnificent hotels, The Donald is also a kind person. I know because he said so. “I think I am a nice person. People that know me, like me. Does my family like me? I think so, right…I give a lot of money away to charities and other things.” What are those “other things”?  I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter why people like The Donald – they just do.

And as a kind person, he loves other people – all types of people. Among them are:
• His family, who he introduced during the event. It was his lovely daughter Ivanka who hyped the crowd before The Donald’s magnificent entrance coming down from his board room above, using the escalator, to greet the “thousands” in the audience. Surely The Donald is blessed with multiple wives and loving children. “I love my life. I have a wonderful family.”
• Soldiers (especially wounded ones). “We have wounded soldiers, who I love, I love — they’re great — all over the place.”
• Republican presidential candidates. “…[T]hey’re wonderful people”.
• Lobbyists. “I have lobbyists that can produce anything for me. They’re great”.
• Cheerleaders. “And we also need a cheerleader…Obama wasn’t a cheerleader. He’s actually a negative force”.
• The Chinese. “I like China. I sell apartments for — I just sold an apartment for $15 million to somebody from China. Am I supposed to dislike them?”
• Tom Brady and the Patriots. “It’s like take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team. That’s the difference between China’s leaders and our leaders.”
• The Saudis. “I love the Saudis. Many are in this building. They make a billion dollars a day.”

The Donald is truly a loving person.  A rich, loving person.

So, that’s why I’m voting for The Donald. He will solve our critical problems by using common sense and hiring good people and making deals and threatening opponents and doing it all for pennies on the dollar. I know because he said he will.

And he is a kind person, one who is also rich. Really rich.

Some of you might think I am trumpeting his candidacy to boost his polls so that he will be included in the debates. Do you really think I would support The Donald for his entertainment value? Have I ever been anything but a sober-minded, empirical-driven analyst? I didn’t think so.

This is an election about competence. The Donald said so. And who is more competent than he? Don’t take my word for it – here’s what the hyper-competent Gary Busey had to say about The Donald back in 2012:

So join me and Gary Busey and Terrell Owens and the thousands of others would-be apprentices who watched The Donald’s speech and came away thinking, “Donald, you’re hired!”

Hillary Clinton: Campaigning in Prose

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” former New Yorker Governor Mario Cuomo famously proclaimed. Hillary Clinton is likely to prove Cuomo wrong; her campaign rollout speech yesterday on New York’s Roosevelt Island suggests she is determined to campaign in prose as well. Indeed, it was about as prosaic a speech as one could image; with its litany of policy proposals and homage to constituency groups it felt more like a State of the Union address than a stirring call to campaign arms. Not surprisingly, reporters in the major newspapers struggled to fashion a lead to their stories that adequately captured a single overarching theme in the speech. Some emphasized its “populist” message, particularly her focus on reducing economic inequities. Others focused on her four “fights”, alluding to both her own political career as well as FDR’s “four freedoms” but focusing particularly on Clinton’s homage to the lessons she had learned from her mother who overcame a difficult upbringing.

What almost everyone agreed on was that the speech was big on broad themes – promoting inclusiveness and economic equality – and more concrete policy objectives – universal preschool, expanded family leave – but weak on the specifics regarding how to achieve those goals. And she largely stayed clear of the more controversial issues – the 12-nation Pacific trade pact, her tenure heading the State Department, or even how to deal with ISIS – that potentially divide the Democratic Party. The sprawling presentation was clearly designed to appeal to a litany of groups – women, labor unions, racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, truckers, veterans, nurses, small business owners – and to tout a broad range of progressive policies presented as common-sense centrist ideas. In short, there was something for everyone, but little to provoke opposition.

Of course, this should not surprise anyone. Clinton is dominating the polls, and the money race as well, and it makes absolutely no sense for her to wade into areas of controversy, or to weigh herself down by embracing policy specifics that are sure to attract fire from opponents. Candidates may campaign in poetry (or, in Clinton’s case in prose), but they also do so in generalities. Details come later, after the election is over.

For me, three aspects of the speech stood out. The first was her self-deprecating reference to her age (if elected, Clinton would be the oldest person other than Ronald Reagan to take the oath of office) and her hair color – allusions that she then turned to her advantage by reminding her audience that she is running a historic campaign: “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.”

But she followed this with a rather awkward reference to a Beatles’ song, Yesterday, in a somewhat forced attempt to accuse the Republicans of peddling old ideas: “There may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir. But they’re all singing the same old song. It’s a song called ‘Yesterday. They believe in yesterday.” Well, perhaps, but it was hard not to listen to that reference and wonder if it more appropriately describes her political career.

A second awkward moment occurred as she sought to flesh out her biography by discussing her mother Dorothy Rodham’s difficult upbringing; Rodham was abandoned by her parents and struggled to establish her own life. But in transitioning to describing how she learned from her mother’s experiences, Clinton’s recitation of her own efforts after graduating from Yale Law School to help the underprivileged seemed to fall flat. It’s not hard to imagine more than one listener contrasting Rodham’s difficult life with Hillary’s financially comfortable existence.

In the end, the speech (you can read it in full here) was unlikely to move voters much; those who support Hillary undoubtedly found much to like – it was a reminder that she has extensive political experience, embraces mainstream Democratic policies, and as a woman represents a bloc of voters who feel their representation in the White House is long overdue. On the other hand, those who view her as an opportunist who lacks strong convictions, who plays by her own rules and whose ties to the financial elite blinds her to the need of the middle class, aren’t likely to have been swayed to think any differently.

Can she win? She certainly has an audience; yesterday’s speech was very well attended, but it did not elicit roars of approval so much as polite cheers and applause at the appropriate moments. That response is a reminder that candidates running for a third successive presidential term for their party face a difficult challenge. They must simultaneously carve out their own political identity while not fully repudiating their predecessor’s record. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Al Gore and John McCain all struggled with finding the appropriate balance of paying homage to the incumbent and his record but also achieving separation, and of these only the elder Bush was successful in securing his party’s third presidential term. For Clinton, the issue is further complicated by the dynastic element of her candidacy – a issue that was on full display Saturday, as these pictures by Middlebury’s Elsa Alvarado from the rally demonstrate. They remind us that when Hillary takes the political stage, her husband is invariably somewhere behind her – for better and for worse: