Opinion: At Johnson C. Smith, a President's Case For the Dreaded Establishment

Stumping for Hillary, Bill Clinton lays out a radical prescription for what ails America: policy
Johnson C. Smith University
Bill Clinton at JCSU on Monday.

We’ve been told for months that this year’s presidential election belongs to “anti-establishment” candidates, the ones who can best channel the popular rage against a political system that, to the extent it works at all, succeeds in cutting ordinary people out of the process.

Analysts aren’t wrong about the causes or effects—otherwise, we wouldn’t have a right-wing authoritarian leading one race and a democratic socialist contending in the other—but that brush these days is looking too broad by half. Hillary Clinton continues to outpace Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in most polls. She emerged as the clear leader for the Democratic nomination after the Super Tuesday primaries, when she won seven of 11 states with the help of two groups that haven’t, and probably won’t, warm to Sanders: blacks and Southerners.

So here came Bill Clinton on Monday, trying to whip up support for his wife at a historic black college in North Carolina. The overall response was enthusiastic enough—it was the first presidential visit to JCSU since William Howard Taft’s, in 1909—but there was no getting around the e-word for some folks. On Monday evening, Charlotte artist and friend of the magazine Quentin “Q” Talley posted some very uncomplimentary comments about the Clintons to his Facebook page. (He’s since taken them down.) I sent him a message: “Not saying I agree or disagree, but what exactly is your issue with the Clintons?”

His response made perfect sense given the times. “I don’t like the dynasty feel that the campaign brings,” he messaged back. “I know logically that Hillary is a capable person but overall she represents a status quo in Washington that hasn’t been working." That’s the rub, isn’t it? Hillary is trying to sell competence and experience in government during a season when neither is trading for much.

Which is why, even with Bill’s repeated references to Hillary as a “changemaker,” what the 42nd president was really pitching almost qualifies as radical: policy. Up Interstate 85 in Concord, Donald Trump had just finished his standard male member-swinging stump speech, promising impossible trade tariffs and a robust war crimes program as a foreign policy plank; Sanders, in Michigan on the eve of that state’s primary, continued to (correctly) decry income disparity, big money, and unnecessary war without going too deep on how his presidency might solve any of the big problems.

While Sanders told people at a rally in Ann Arbor to “think big,” Bill Clinton in Charlotte was going small: tax credits to businesses that relocate to underserved markets, such as Appalachian coal country; a mechanism to allow college students to refinance their loans when interest rates fall, as their parents can with their mortgages (big cheer from the college crowd on that one); a program to encourage banks to extend more small business loans. Bill hit on the big stuff, too, of course, such as reversing Citizens United and non-discrimination against Muslims—it’s incredible that it even needs to be said, but hey, it’s a new day—but the overall point was made: This is what it means to govern. If passion’s what you’re after, there’s plenty of it up I-85.

It’s not a trendy message, but given the available options, realpolitik doesn’t sound that bad. Even newcomers to the political circus grasp it. Taeja Gandy, a 19-year-old JCSU freshman biology major, was three when Bill Clinton left the White House. She told me she’s “looking into Hillary” but hadn’t followed the campaign closely.

“I feel like she would be organized,” Taeja said when I asked why she was leaning toward Hillary over Bernie Sanders. “Bernie, it seems like he’s just trying to get to the people. Hillary, she just seems more professional.” It took a couple of more questions to get at what she was really saying: that Hillary, more than any of her actual or eventual opponents, gives the impression that she knows what she’s doing.

Categories: The Buzz