The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Hillary Clinton’s latest slogan — ‘we’re stronger together’ — really says about her candidacy

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Hillary Clinton appeared on Meet the Press yesterday to talk about her campaign, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. See if you’re clever enough to spot her new campaign slogan:

Chuck Todd: Bernie Sanders has been talking about a political revolution. A future you can believe in. Obviously, Donald Trump with the Make America Great again, is one of these slogans that has taken off, for better or for worse. If you could sum up, what is the big idea of your candidacy?
Hillary Clinton: Look, we are stronger together. We are stronger together, in facing our internal challenges and our external ones. We are stronger together if we work to improve the economy. And that’s going to mean trying to get the Republicans to do what will actually help produce more jobs, like we saw in the 1990s. We are stronger together when we have a bipartisan, even nonpartisan foreign policy that protects our country. And that provides a kind of steady, strong, smart leadership that the rest of the world expects from us.
And I know that, you know, slogans come and go, and all the rest of it. But when I look at where we are in our country together, we need to unify the country. We are stronger together, when we act on a set of plans and priorities that will redound to the benefit of the American people.

Your first impulse might be to say, “‘Stronger Together’? That’s weak.” And you wouldn’t be completely wrong. But it does actually reveal some important things about Clinton as a candidate and the president she would likely be.

To begin with, let’s acknowledge that slogans — or perhaps it might be better to say a candidate’s basic message, whether it’s actually short enough to fit on a hat — aren’t meaningless. They offer a way to understand the guiding principle that ties together all a candidate’s more complex policy plans, a structure that tells people at the most fundamental level what they’re voting for. And they can tell an entire story, one that in its best form has three parts: what the problem is that the country faces, what the solution to that problem is, and why this candidate is the person to bring about that solution.

In this campaign, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have that kind of message. Sanders says that the country is in the control of millionaires and billionaires, what’s needed is a political revolution that will wrest power from them, and only an unsullied figure like him can do it. Trump says that the country has gone to hell because of stupid leaders and the cultural, political, and economic influence of people other than white men; he promises to make America great again by restoring the hierarchies of decades past, which only someone of his personal tremendousness can accomplish.

Clinton does not have that kind of message. She is fundamentally a technocratic candidate promising a technocratic presidency. That doesn’t mean she isn’t guided by a particular set of values, but she lacks an overarching critique of the country and its politics, a belief that every particular problem is a symptom of one giant problem. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — she can make a persuasive case that her analysis is the most accurate one. She’d say that America is basically doing well, even though there are a variety of specific problems that we need to solve; and solving those problems requires knowledge, understanding, planning, and execution, not sloganeering.

So what does “Stronger Together” tell us? First, it’s a statement of liberal values. Ten years ago, I wrote a book in which I argued that liberals needed a straightforward summary of their ideological perspective, one that explained why they believe what they do and favor the particular policies they do. The summary I suggested was, “We’re all in it together,” which communicates a mutuality of interest, concern, and fate that contrasts with the conservative idea that we’re essentially all on our own and all out for ourselves. “Stronger Together” is a similar idea.

It’s also a nod at Clinton’s practicality (solving problems requires working together), and of course, it’s a response to Donald Trump’s divisive ethno-nationalist campaign, his argument to white voters that their problems can be blamed on immigrants and Muslims and foreigners. Clinton will no doubt be taking every opportunity she can to remind non-white voters — who made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2012 and will be more like 31 percent in 2016 — of Trump’s hostility toward them.

I’m sure that the Clinton campaign has much of its general election plan in place, at least in skeletal form — which states the candidate will be traveling to most often, where they’ll want to spend their ad dollars, which demographic groups will be the focus of particular attention. But it’s obvious that Clinton still hasn’t decided on a single message she wants to send the voters. As her pollster Joel Benenson told Greg last week, she’ll be countering Trump with a programmatic agenda that she and her advisers believe has great appeal to voters.

“This isn’t about bluster,” Benenson said. “It’s about having real plans to get stuff done. When it comes to the economy, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with plans that have been vetted and will make a difference in people’s lives.”

“Real plans to get stuff done” doesn’t exactly make the heart swell with hope, any more than “Stronger Together.” But Hillary Clinton is who she is. She doesn’t have what George H.W. Bush once dismissively referred to as “the vision thing.” She has a long list of things she’d like to do, and she’d surely argue that having “vision” isn’t necessarily a good thing, if the vision you’ve got is one like Trump’s. So something tells me this is not the last slogan we’ll get from the Clinton campaign.