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Candidate Clinton, Embracing the Trite and the True

Echoing the words of so many others, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said of U.S. troops:
Echoing the words of so many others, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said of U.S. troops: "They don't have the luxury of passing the buck to somebody else. They step forward and they step up." (Photo By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, March 9, 2007

Are you in it to win? Would you regard civil rights as the gift that keeps on giving? Do you believe in the American Dream, stupid?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you might consider supporting Hillary Clinton, the person to send to the White House when you care enough to send the very best. More than any other candidate, Clinton has brought the sensibility of Hallmark greeting cards to the 2008 presidential race.

Yesterday, the Democratic front-runner took a number of provocative stands as she spoke about soldiers and veterans at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank:

"If you serve your country, your country should serve you."

"I'm here to say that the buck does stop with this president."

"Let us work . . . to take care of those who are taking care of us."

The controversy didn't end there. She also offered her view that American soldiers are simultaneously "giving their all," "holding their breath" and "stretched to the breaking point." Candidate Cliche continued: "Who's on their side? Who's standing up for them? . . . We owe these young men and women the very best."

We do not owe them the very best rhetoric, however. Abraham Lincoln gave the last full measure of devotion to support-the-troops language 142 years ago, when he called on the nation "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan." Yesterday, Clinton had this to say of the troops: "They don't have the luxury of passing the buck to somebody else. They step forward and they step up."

In fairness, the current occupant of the White House has left future generations little to work with, should they ever decide to etch his words in marble. Bring 'em on? Smoke 'em out? With us or against us? But Clinton's platitudes are deliberate, not innate. As the Democrats' front-runner, she needs to be as anodyne as possible if she is to overcome her polarizing reputation.

"I come to share the memories of a troubled past and a hope for a better tomorrow," Clinton said in Selma, Ala., on Sunday. "Our future matters, and it is up to us to take it back, put it into our hands, start marching toward a better tomorrow." Any objections?

Clinton reserved her loftiest words for the "blood, sweat and tears" put into the Voting Rights Act, which "gave more Americans from every corner of our nation the chance to live out their dreams," she said. "And it is the gift that keeps on giving." Clinton kept giving, too: "Let us join together and complete that march for freedom, justice, opportunity and everything America should be," she said.

A month earlier, she appeared before a Democratic National Committee crowd. "I'm in, and I'm in to win, because we have to take our country back!" she announced. She mixed metaphors like a Cuisinart: "Take our country back and put it on the right track. . . . I am not running for president to put Band-Aids on our problems. . . . Let's plow ahead."

On the Senate floor, Clinton's observations have been sharp and trenchant. On national security: "Keeping our nation strong and our people safe requires that we employ the best and smartest strategies available." On Iraq: "Standing on the sidelines is no way to stand up for the troops." On civil rights: "The endurance of our democracy requires constant vigilance."

But it is on the campaign trail where Clinton's language really soars. According to The Post's Anne Kornblut, a veteran Clinton watcher, the candidate's greatest moment on the stump came last summer in Denver, when she gave an updated version of "It's the economy, stupid," an unofficial slogan of her husband's 1992 campaign. "It's the American Dream, stupid," she proposed. A few weeks earlier, Clinton laid out her legislative agenda, including: "I believe in the chance for every person to pursue his or her dreams"; "we are safer and stronger when we work together"; "we are a resilient people"; and "we care deeply about the future."

Excerpts in advance of Clinton's speech yesterday hinted at similarly courageous stands. She promised the troops that "your country will have your back" and pledged: "They've given their all, and so must we."

In the flesh, Clinton didn't disappoint. "When the injured soldiers return home," she told the crowd of 200, "they should be greeted with open arms, not a wall of bureaucratic red tape." If there was dissent in the room, it was not audible. "Our soldiers are facing some very difficult challenges," she allowed, but she vowed to "put in place a system to get everybody to the front of the line."

Don't understand the logistics of getting everybody to the front of the line? It's the American Dream, stupid.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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