Hillary's Uninspiring Agenda

The Democratic frontrunner launches her candidacy with a speech that’s long on proposals, short on enthusiasm.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

NEW YORK—After Hillary Clinton's speech, as the spectators began to file out from the sun-drenched island park, I came across an elderly couple arguing about it.

“I thought it lacked energy,” said 71-year-old Susanne Ellman.

I was energized, Susanne,” said her husband, 73-year-old Marty Ellman. The Ellmans are retired from IBM and volunteered full-time on both of President Obama's presidential campaigns.

Clinton would make a fine president, but she was not charismatic, Susanne fretted. Her candidacy wouldn’t excite people.

“She covered all the bases I cared about. She had very solid proposals,” Marty countered. He especially liked Clinton's support for a constitutional amendment to, as he put it, “prevent corporations from buying elections.”

“All I heard was a lot of things she'll never be able to get done!” cried Susanne.

“She's going to fight the good fight!” Marty replied. “That's the important part.”

The Ellmans were both right: In her 45-minute address on New York's Roosevelt Island, a wooded sliver in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, Clinton laid out many proposals that Democrats care about. She did so in a speech that was almost aggressively pedestrian, devoid of soaring rhetoric or big ideas. “America can't succeed unless you succeed,” she said. “That's why I am running for president of the United States.” Clinton’s entire candidacy, it seemed, was built around a non sequitur.

The occasion itself was a strange one. Saturday's speech was, according to Clinton's campaign, a “launch,” yet Clinton announced her candidacy two months ago. Was she hoping to start over? Certainly not, her staff insisted—everything, they say, is going just fine, terrifically even. The chairman of Clinton's campaign, John Podesta, resorted to a baseball metaphor to explain the double beginning: “We've had spring training,” he said. “Now it's opening day.”

Since declaring herself a candidate in April, Clinton has puttered along—making discreet forays into Iowa and New Hampshire, appearing at a smattering of fundraisers. She has taken stands, selectively, on hot-button issues, notably immigration, criminal justice, and voting rights—in all three cases, articulating meaty, liberal policy stances—while avoiding wading into issues that have badly divided her party, like free trade or the prospect of escalating intervention in the Middle East. She has studiously ignored or waved off the swirling controversies about her use of email and the finances of the Clinton Foundation. She has listened.

In keeping with the campaign so far, Saturday's speech was quite substantive and quite liberal. It was also quite flat. Clinton read it slowly off the teleprompter, articulating every word, sometimes with odd emphasis, in a near-monotone. Clinton spoke in Four Freedoms Park, a locale chosen for its symbolic freight. It was a surprisingly small venue that did not quite fill up; an area set up for overflow with a large TV screen remained vacant. The campaign said more than 5,500 people were in attendance.

Clinton began with a tribute to Roosevelt's “four freedoms,” though she never said what they were. She segued into what she called her “four fights”: to make the economy work for the middle class; to strengthen America's families with pro-worker policies; to “maintain our leadership for peace, security and prosperity”; and to reform government and revitalize democracy. Under these vague headings she crammed expanding renewable energy, fighting climate change, funding infrastructure, universal preschool and childcare, making college affordable, paid sick days, paid family leave, equal pay for women, services for the addicted and mentally ill, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a ban on discrimination against gay and transgender people, and automatic voter registration.

The national-security section of the speech was optimistic, but exceedingly vague, with talk of meeting emerging threats with “creative and confident leadership.” Clinton summed up her accomplishments as secretary of state this way: “I’ve stood up to adversaries like Putin and reinforced allies like Israel. I was in the Situation Room on the day we got bin Laden.” Other than a vow to “rein in banks that are still too risky,” Clinton did not inveigh against the rich and powerful. Yet no one could accuse Clinton of not having an agenda; none of the Republican candidates has offered such a barrage of proposals. Recent polls have shown that most voters do not find Clinton trustworthy. She is apparently betting that policy and substance can be a substitute for character and personality.

For the most part, Clinton’s was a speech that could have been given, with very little modification, by almost any Democratic Senate candidate. There was the hard-luck story by proxy, in this case her mother's abandonment at the hands of Clinton's grandparents. There was the invocation of the American spirit (resilience, determination). There were paeans to small businesses and the importance of family. An accusation that Republicans belong to the past, delivered as an excruciatingly corny riff on the Beatles (“They believe in yesterday!”). “It's America's basic bargain: If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead,” said Clinton and seemingly every other candidate you've ever heard give a speech.

There was a token attempt to make a personal connection. Clinton spoke about her mother’s difficult beginning, neglected by her family and working as a housemaid from the age of 14. Clinton talked about volunteering, through her church, to babysit the children of Mexican farmworkers, and knocking on doors for the Children's Defense Fund to find children whose disabilities prevented them from going to school. “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race,” she said, “but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well.”

The crowd, which skewed young, diverse, and polite, gave this line a cheer. They waved little American flags and held up their phones to take pictures and videos. Clinton will spend the coming week visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and will proceed to flesh out her vision with policy speeches, delivered approximately weekly until the end of the summer.

Clinton’s advisers worry about the lack of passion the candidate elicits, but Saturday's speech was so non-rousing as to make one wonder whether that wasn't intentional—was it an attempt to bring Clinton down to earth, to make her ordinary? To deflate the aura of fame that clings to her and turn her into just another candidate, one who is solid and sensible and not too flashy, with lots of concrete plans?

Clinton tried this tack before, in 2008, when she tried in vain to convince Democratic voters that Barack Obama was all style and no substance. But this time, she is hoping she won't have that kind of competition. On my way into Saturday's rally, I ran into Charlie Rangel, the scandal-ridden Harlem representative, still going strong at 85. I asked him how he thought Hillary's campaign was going, and he laughed.

“Well, who's she competing against?” he said. Technically, there are three other declared Democratic candidates, but Clinton leads them in the polls by an average of 48 percentage points. Rangel said he did not know anyone who regarded them as real competition to Clinton. “She's doing exceptionally well,” Rangel said, “in a one-man race.”