Clinton's New York: If She Can't Make It There, She Can't Make It Anywhere

In a wild election year in which the bizarre is attractive and the inconceivable comes around like clockwork, the Democratic frontrunner seems overwhelmingly normal.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reacts at the Apollo Theater in New York, March 30, 2016.
AP

Hillary Clinton kicked off her New York campaign on Wednesday at Harlem’s fabled Apollo Theater, a hall that launched the careers of a multitude of African-American performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and many more. The venue, of course, was anything but coincidental: Clinton needs the full support of New York’s African American community in order to ensure her victory over Bernie Sanders in the April 19 primaries.

It’s the first time that the Empire State has played such a crucial role in choosing a presidential candidate since the exact same date in 1988, when Michael Dukakis scored a resounding win over Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and (not the singer) Paul Simon. “If we can make it in New York, we can make it anywhere,” an optimistic and unrealistic Dukakis said, citing the popular New York New York, seven months before he was trounced by George Bush Sr. For Clinton, the inverse is true: if she can’t make in New York, where she holds a big lead in the polls, she won’t be able to make it anywhere.

Before New York, Clinton must face Sanders next Tuesday in Wisconsin, on April 5. After months in which she was thought to hold a solid lead, a new poll published on Wednesday showed Sanders with a four-point lead. If he takes Wisconsin, Sanders will come to New York with turbo-charged morale and motivation, while Clinton will be facing a do-or-die showdown.

“What a wild election year we’re having,” Clinton told the audience of supporters that crowded into the 125th Street auditorium in Manhattan, in epic understatement. In a campaign in which ignorance is bliss, the bizarre seems attractive and the inconceivable comes around like clockwork, Clinton unique selling proposition is her very normalcy. Instead of revolution she suggests progress, in lieu of exhilaration she offers resolve, instead of burning down the house she suggests building on its foundations. In addition to the historic significance of her gender, Clinton’s calling card is experience, on both the national and the state levels. She was a N.Y. U.S. Senator, as Senator Chuck Schumer repeatedly reminded the audience yesterday, for eight years.

She attacks Donald Trump more often and more vigorously, but does not ignore Sanders either. One can’t be a single-issue president, she chided, alluding to the Vermont Senator’s focus on income inequality and the plight of the middle class. One can’t deal with Russia, Iran and China as an afterthought, she added: “the elections are for President AND Commander in Chief.” In this crowd, equally divided between black and white, with a preponderance of middle aged women and a noticeable lack of young and old, Sanders is booed, but not at the same decibel level as Trump, Cruz or former president George W. Bush, whose name is mentioned surprisingly often.

Although she has a long list of policy proposals on social and economic issues - some of which were pilfered from Sanders, his supporters say - Clinton emphasizes that she is the only standard bearer for the Democratic principles of equality for minorities, especially women and African Americans. Her calls for equal pay for women naturally draw the loudest applause of the day. She describes Trump and Cruz as “determined to divide us any further”, but “this goes against everything New York and America stand for.” She castigates the Republican duo for their anti-Muslim agitation and, in a message that might go over better in the city than upstate, she says, “Our diversity is a strength, not a weakness.” 

The crowd, or at least half of it, frequently gets up to give Clinton standing ovations. The other half, or so it seems, are cadres of New York journalists, domestic and foreign, who are jumping at the chance to finally witness the campaign in their Big Apple habitat. When the event is over, the reporters eagerly seek out some “woman in the street” reactions, but the demand far exceeds the supply. Thus, the corridor to the exit from the Apollo to the street hosts several impromptu press conferences in which groups of reporters eagerly await the word of rank and file Clintophiles. “I’m optimistic,” said a woman who presented herself as Carla, though, frankly, she didn’t look it.

Perhaps this is a common concern, because the most popular refrain during the rather long hours in which the audience awaited Clinton was “I believe she will win”, which became less convincing the more it was chanted. The more emphatic “Madam President” was rarer, for similar reason perhaps. Sanders’ overwhelming victories in the three Western caucuses on Saturday may have unsettled Clinton and her aides; who would have thought, one well placed observer said, that New York in April would turn out to be so important.

The attitude towards Sanders, it seems, is now to suspect more and respect less. The Clinton campaign’s unsustainable demand that Sanders must tone down his criticism of Clinton as a precondition to a special New York debate was wisely withdrawn, and the two sides are negotiating a compromise now. Sanders’ stipulation that he would endorse Clinton only if she adopts certain positions certainly raised alarms, which only rang louder after the Senator’s supporter Susan Sarandon called Clinton a liar and claimed many Sander fans might not vote for her, if she is the Democratic nominee. “Trump will bring revolution” Sarandon inanely claimed in accordance with the maxim wrongly ascribed to Vladimir Lenin, the worse the better.

But Clinton is nothing if not polished and professional, smiling all the time, even when Schumer tediously overstays his welcome as her opening act. After the event at the Apollo is over, Clinton dutifully performs the ritual of mingling with the fans and activists who had been placed behind her to serve as the backdrop for the television shots. She hugs them and lets them hug her in return, laughs at their jokes and tries to respond in kind, posing for countless selfies, as if there’s nothing in the world she enjoys more. Surprising as it seems, given her own supposed inevitability and the eccentricity of her rivals, Clinton’s victory is hardly in the bag. If she loses, at least she’ll know it wasn’t for lack of effort.