Lady of the Lists

To defend everyplace, Frederick the Great once told his generals, is to defend no place. It's a bit of wisdom that seems to elude the Clintons completely, Hill no less than Bill. As she made her final pitch to New Hampshire voters last night in a hall by the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, she covered the waterfront of problems America faces and the solutions she proposes. All that was missing was a theme, an emphasis, a sorting of priorities, a touch of context, some urgency, a larger raison d'etre, a grand -- dare we say, presidential -- purpose.

The setting certainly was designed to allow the beleaguered senator to break from her Q&A-with-New-Hampshire-voters sessions of the past two days, to make a dramatic final pitch and restatement of her cause. This plainly was a rally, with a large, boisterous crowd, a warm-up band, a meeting where call-and-response -- the candidate makes a case, the audience roars -- was the order of the day.

Hillary began in a promising enough way, touting her readiness from her first day in office to start pulling troops from Iraq, to stand up to the oil companies, to take on global warming. She began talking about the stresses of middle-class life in America and sounded for a while like her own version of John Edwards (by now, each of the three top Democratic candidates have lifted so much material from the other two that the same sentences pop up at all the candidates' rallies). She talked about the economic anxieties of ordinary Americans; she called for 5 million green jobs, for rebuilding the nation's manufacturing base.

And then, the fighting populist moved on, first, to health care, pledging to provide coverage for preventive and mental health care, to fund the national institutes of health to combat cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's; and then on to education, pledging to end No Child Left Behind and "long, confusing financial aid forms"; and next to pledging to establish American Retirement Accounts to supplement Social Security; and on and on, the once raucous and enthusiastic crowd growing quieter and quieter as the speech turned into a litany of programs for problems big and small.

Though some of her ideas were new, Hillary's speech still sounded oddly familiar. In fact, it sounded a great deal like Bill's State of the Union addresses, particularly in his second term, which were laundry lists of programs, most of them small enough so that he wouldn't seem ridiculous suggesting them to what was a Republican-dominated Congress. By the end of her talk last night, even Hillary's big and great ideas sounded like so many V-chips.

Is the disaggregated laundry list a distinctively Clintonian form of presentation? To be sure, it comports with the worldview of senior campaign strategist Mark Penn, for whom the nation consists of niche populations with niche problems to be solved by niche solutions. That was how Penn structured Bill's 1996 re-election campaign. But left to his own devices, Bill would slip into the laundry-list mode without much provocation. And now Hill, facing a political crisis, seems stuck within it as well.

It is not a minor defect. The laundry list is a fine mode of presentation when the possibilities and limits of your time are clear and agreed upon. It was still Ronald Reagan's America during Bill Clinton's presidency, particularly once the Gingrichites took Congress. Most of Bill's speeches were lists of the things that could be done without challenging the political assumptions of the age. As he had in Arkansas, Bill knew he couldn't push too far, too hard, for too much. The limits were clear.

The one time in his career when he did push beyond those limits was during the 1992 campaign, when he was a candidate of bigger ideas and certainly more governmental activism than he could pursue after 1994. You have to sound your theme up front and clear, Louis Armstrong once said, before you can move on to your riffs and variations. Bill did that in 1992, but Hill is having trouble doing that in 2008.

For the possibilities and limits of the time are very much not agreed upon right now, and you wouldn't know that from listening to Hillary. Her programs are every bit as forward-looking, and in some cases a good deal more detailed, than John Edwards' and Barack Obama's. But Edwards and Obama are each doing something more, and something other, than putting forth programs: They are intoning the death of the old political order and the birth of a new one. Obama's call for building a new majority ultimately suggests a reconciliation of races; Edwards' call for a rebalancing of class forces suggests an end to Reagan's age of laissez-faire (to paraphrase a book title by a writer named Kuttner).

In Hillary's presentations, by contrast, nothing big is being born or dying. Perhaps because she has a stake in the 1990s, perhaps because she and Bill have been on the defensive for so long, perhaps because she personifies the oppositional establishment of the old order and cannot summon up a grand vision of the new, she, like Bill, comes to us with lists, while Obama enlists us in nothing less than renewing the American project.

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