Why a Flight to Flint May Be Clinton’s Cleverest Move Yet
As she stood behind a tall lectern in a Baptist church in Flint, Michigan yesterday, surrounded by Flint citizens still reeling from a scandal that has left untold numbers of children poisoned by lead-tainted water, Hillary Clinton told the congregation that such a crisis was no time for “politics as usual.” And for Clinton, at least, this moment certainly wasn’t politics as usual.
If it had been, then Clinton would have been back in New Hampshire, priming the state’s citizens for tomorrow’s primary, which polls predict her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, will win handily.
If she had been practicing politics as usual, she would have been in a city like Portsmouth, where that afternoon, Sanders was charming a group of more than 1,200 people gathered at a college gym as he decried income inequality and railed against the Walton family, owners of Walmart.
Or she would have been in Milford, making a last ditch effort to change voters’ minds by attacking Sanders, as her husband, President Bill Clinton, did in a sound bite that made national news. “When you’re making a revolution,” President Clinton said in an obvious dig at Sanders, “you can’t be too careful with the facts.”
Instead, the former first lady was about 730 miles away, talking not about ISIS or taxes or the middle class or Planned Parenthood or Sanders or Republicans or even votes, but about lead paint, pipes, pre-emptive special education funding, and the $200 million bill in Congress that would help fix Flint’s water infrastructure.
Some in the press criticized Clinton’s flight to Flint as an admission that she was giving up on New Hampshire, and while it may be true that the campaign is bracing for a loss, this characterization is a misread of the larger story. In fact, going to Flint may have been Clinton’s most powerful campaign move yet.
The Enthusiasm Gap
The Clinton staff seems to have accepted that Sanders is winning the pure, unbridled enthusiasm race. Clinton has herself implicitly admitted as much, telling Sanders during last week’s Democratic debate, “I personally am thrilled at the numbers of people, and particularly young people who are coming to support your campaign.”
Along the way, the Clinton campaign has adopted a new motto, urging audiences to vote not just with their hearts but also with their heads. Clinton, her family, and her supporters have turned to reminding voters again and again that they don’t just need a president who excites. They need a president who executes.
And so, while Sanders stumped in New Hampshire and shared a stage with Larry David on Saturday Night Live this weekend, Clinton went to Flint, not to campaign, but to demonstrate how as president she would deliver on her promises.
What happened in Flint, Clinton told the congregation, “is not merely unacceptable or wrong, though it is both. What happened in Flint is immoral.” She admitted that so much about the crisis in Flint is still unknown—how many children have been impacted and what exactly those impacts will be. But, she said, “Even a single child suffering lead poisoning due to the state’s neglect is one child too many.”
Clinton called for specific changes, as well. She urged Congress to pass the bill to fix Flint’s infrastructure “immediately” and emphasized the need to expand educational opportunities for children who suffer long-term neurological effects from lead exposure. She suggested sending Americorps volunteers to work in Flint and said she had spoken with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, who has endorsed Clinton, about finding ways to employ Flint citizens in the recovery effort.
But perhaps most importantly, she made a promise. “I will be there with you,” she said, “and I will make sure in any way I can that America stays with you too.”
Both Clinton and Sanders, who has also spoken out repeatedly about the crisis in Flint and has even opened a campaign office there, have been accused by their Republican opponents of politicizing the issue. And yet, it seems it took an election year for the Flint disaster, two years in the making, to register in the national consciousness. Sad as it may sound, it’s only by politicizing the issue that the issue became known. That’s good for Flint. But it’s also good for Clinton, because now, if change does come to Flint—in any of the many ways change is needed—Clinton will be able to claim at least some of the credit.
By Sunday night, Clinton was back in New Hampshire, ordering up chicken fingers and milkshakes at Puritan Backroom in Manchester. By this morning, she was back on the stump with her husband and her daughter, campaigning at Manchester Community College before a standing room only crowd, who waved signs that spelled out H-I-L-L-A-R-Y in blue block letters.
And she was back on script, talking, as she always does, about college affordability and Planned Parenthood and raising middle class incomes and immigration reform. She discussed the differences between herself and Sen. Sanders, namely the “scars” she bears from decades of work in public office.
While some of the audience members said they were still undecided, none of them faulted Clinton for taking the trip away from New Hampshire or viewed it as a slight against New Hampshire voters. In fact, they say, she appears stronger for it, “I think it’s awesome she did that,” said Sandra Isaacson, an undecided voter from Manchester. “It shows she really cares, and it’s not just a bunch of hooey.”
Rob Jennings, an undecided voter from Bedford, agreed. “I think that she did the right thing,” he said.
Jennings says his chief concern about voting for Sanders is that he won’t “follow through” on his promises, a message echoed by New Hampshire voters across the state. Of Clinton, he says, “I think she’ll get the job done.”