STRONGER TOGETHER: A Blueprint for America’s Future
By Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 249 pp. $15.99
By the time I finished this book, I resented its existence.
“Stronger Together,” ostensibly written by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine — they are listed as authors and each provides a brief, first-person introduction explaining how hard their parents worked, and a brief, first-person conclusion explaining how hard they themselves work — is a self-confessed cut-and-paste job of campaign fact sheets, speeches and op-eds. That sets rather modest expectations. Yet, even by that standard, and the low bar for candidates’ campaign books overall, “Stronger Together” is an embarrassment, sloppy, repetitive, dutiful and boring. This is a book that, 237 pages in, actually thanks readers for making it that far.
I don’t understand why this book was compiled — “written” is too generous a verb — or why it was published. If you really want to dive into the Clinton/Kaine promises and proposals, the campaign website awaits you. You don’t need to wade through this book. No one does. No one should. The only people I imagine reading it are future fact-checkers, masochistic book critics and the most strung out of political junkies.
Of course, even the awful is illuminating. The campaign book genre is rarely the stuff of high literature; it’s a sanitized mix of biography and ideology aimed at introducing or reintroducing a candidate. In this case, however, we already know Clinton well. That’s part of her problem. And she has authored three books — the conflicted “It Takes a Village,” the humanizing “Living History,” the tedious “Hard Choices” — so she’s not going to redefine herself with another book two months before Election Day. No, “Stronger Together” is an affirmation of wonkiness, of Day-One readiness, of trust-us-we’ve-thought-of-absolutely-everythingness.
The message here is that, in contrast with Donald Trump and his vague, outlandish and ever-shifting positions, Clinton and Kaine know what they’re doing. They have a plan. And that’s great, except, if “Stronger Together” is any indication, that plan reflects an unwillingness to grapple with trade-offs, an inability to set priorities and an obsession with checking boxes for every possible issue, even when they have nothing new to say about it. Imagine a State of the Union address where nothing is cut, and every interest group gets not just a couple of sentences, but a couple of pages. That is “Stronger Together.”
This blueprint for America’s future, as the subtitle promises, is divided into three main sections, “Growing Together,” on the economy; “Safer Together,” on national security; and “Standing Together,” on domestic policy. (Branding, people!) Each section is divided into six bullet points outlining policy goals; each bullet point into three to six sub-points, and each of those sub-points in turn is divided into further bullet points. It’s a PowerPoint approach that makes for absolutely brutal reading, and one quickly gets lost in the thicket of proposals and 10-year plans, unable to remember what particular problem is being fixed or promise fulfilled. Somehow within the “make the boldest investment in good-paying jobs since World War II within the first 100 days” portion of the economy section, for example, we’re exploring Mars. I’m still not sure why.
The deja vu is plentiful, not just because we’ve heard so much of this stuff during the campaign, but because Clinton and Kaine repeat themselves, often verbatim, throughout the book. “No one should face meager Social Security checks because they took on the vital role of caregiver,” they write. And you know they’re serious, because two pages later, we learn again that “no one should face meager Social Security checks because they took on the vital role of caregiver.” In their foreign policy discussion, Clinton and Kaine warn of the “wide arc of instability that stretches from West Africa all the way to Asia,” except two pages later, they fret over the “wide arc of instability from North Africa to South Asia.” (Is the arc shifting? Could be, it’s unstable!) And then, after they lament that “too many of our representatives in Washington are in the grips of a failed economic theory called trickle-down economics,” they tell us 60 pages later that “too many of our representatives in Washington are still in the grips of the failed theory of trickle-down economics.” Still.
The first few times, it’s vaguely amusing, as though you’ve caught an embarrassing mistake. But then you remember that to feel shame, the authors would have to care. This book was slapped together, barely edited and placed before us quickly, as if to cross one more item off a to-do list, or meet some overwhelming yet imaginary demand. But why rush a book no one’s going to read?
If you want one more recitation of the fact sheets on how a Clinton administration would ease student debt, fight the Islamic State and reform criminal justice, you’ll get your fill of bullet points here. You’ll also find little argumentation, because in this book whatever state of affairs Clinton and Kaine don’t like is self-evidently “outrageous,” while things they do like are just “common sense.” In a “Stronger Together” world, everything is empowering, everyone is public-private-partnering, and everything, Bill Clinton-style, is aimed at the 21st century. And we know their reforms are right because they’re all deemed “smart” — smart investments and smart federal standards and smart defense budgets and smart solutions. The rich must pay their “fair share” in taxes, with fairness less defined than obviously understood among friends. It’s the adjectival school of policymaking.
And everything pays for itself. “Every dollar of infrastructure investment leads to an estimated $1.60 increase in GDP the following year,” they write, making their case for major infrastructure spending. This mind-set pervades the book. “No one should have to choose between. . .” is a typical preface to any trade-off that more spending can eliminate. All things can be achieved by closing some tax loopholes for big corporations and the super wealthy and cutting taxes for the rest. “Stronger Together” contemplates few hard choices.
Instead, there is lots of wishful thinking and dutiful writing. Clinton and Kaine pledge to “end” violence against the transgender community as well as campus sexual assault. These are ambitious and essential objectives, but it’s hard to see how their plans — such as better data and reporting on hate crimes and moving assault prevention programs into high schools as well as colleges — would achieve such finality. The authors stress the threat of cyberattacks, but merely propose the creation of a “threat assessment and response team,” continued sanctions and a new National Commission on Encryption. (A commission shows you are totally on it.) And the authors include a section on disease pandemics, in which the key agenda item is to create a “comprehensive global health strategy” to build a “robust and resilient global public health system.” Yes, the plan is to develop a strategy that will create a system.
Despite all this, there are two reasons to appreciate this book. First, it provides damning evidence that presidential candidates’ campaign books are almost always unnecessary, uninteresting and unenlightening. This is a genre that has reached its term limit. Please, candidates, write a book only when you really, truly have something to say. No surprise, the most acclaimed titles by American presidents either came long before the authors ran for the highest office (think Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” or Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father”) or after they’d left it (such as Ulysses S. Grant’s “Personal Memoirs”). I’m delighted that, unlike their opponent, Clinton and Kaine have so many policy ideas. I just wish they hadn’t placed them in such a lazy book.
Second, “Stronger Together” is replete with paeans to unity, to all Americans coming together. “We have to reclaim the promise of America for everyone, no matter who they vote for” Clinton and Kaine write. In her introduction, Clinton acknowledges that “it’s unusual to hear a candidate for President say we need more love and kindness in our country — but that’s exactly what we need.” Any references to Trump are of the oblique there-are-those-who-say variety. “America is already great,” Clinton and Kaine assert. “And we will make it even greater.”
So it’s telling that “Stronger Together came out the same week that the Democratic nominee dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and argued that the other half are the only ones worth heeding. And Democrats are rallying to the concept. Togetherness makes for a nice slogan, but division makes for a stronger campaign.
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