Bernie Sanders has just released a sweeping, lump-in-your-throat campaign ad that he hopes will push him over the top to victory in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Whether that happens remains to be seen, of course. But one thing about the new spot seems certain: It shows how Senator Sanders and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton have fundamentally different visions of the nature of the American political system.
More specifically, it shows where Sanders and Mrs. Clinton disagree about how political change happens, and the president’s role in that process.
OK, that’s a lot to hang on a one-minute video that features virtually no words, so let’s back up and start from the beginning. The Sanders spot is a closer. In other words, it’s the sort of political ad that campaigns issue when voting is only a short time away. It’s meant to solidify inchoate feelings into a positive candidate image, pushing supporters to the polls.
Music is maybe the spot's most distinctive feature. It is set to the unmistakable strains of the Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel song “America,” from the opening lyric, “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together.”
Distinctly American scenes – small towns, tugboats, skylines, and farms – flash by, changing with each beat of the song.
Then scenes of Sanders rallies begin appearing. Suddenly, it cuts to a flashing montage of people who have sent their photo to the Sanders campaign as a sign of support. Hundreds of them.
“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America,” goes the song.
Then it’s all Bernie, with footage from his raucous rallies over the “All come to look for America” chorus.
Message: It’s all about the people, the people who will power the political revolution, the political revolution that will result in free college and Medicare for all in America. Among other things.
As other pundits have noted, Sanders is positioning himself as this election cycle’s Barack Obama, someone who’s promising inspiration and hope and change, without talking a lot about that change’s viability.
“Bernie Sanders is increasingly sounding an optimistic, inspirational message that promises a bright, progressive future that can, and will, be secured through mobilizing the masses, particularly younger voters, a vision that Clinton surely sees (just as she saw Barack Obama’s vision) as vague, airy, and naive,” writes left-leaning Greg Sargent Thursday in his "Plum Line" blog at The Washington Post.
Comparing Sanders’s “America” ad to Clinton’s latest spot is instructive in this context. “Airy” is not a word you’d use to describe the latter. It’s called “This House,” and it’s mostly about the burdens and responsibilities of the person who calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home.
“The person who lives here has to solve problems as big as the world,” it begins. Then it cuts to a shot of Navy fighter aircraft launching from a carrier.
The ad wants to make sure you know that Clinton believes she is up to this job. It’s more traditional, in the sense that it ticks through her biography, reminding viewers that she’s been first lady, a senator, and secretary of State. (Has anyone forgotten this?)
It mentions existing programs, such as Medicare, and says Clinton will prevent them from being “privatized.” It’s not about mobilizing the power of the people; it’s about day-by-day political trench warfare as it is actually lived in D.C.
“She’ll stop the Republicans from ripping all of our progress away,” it concludes.
That’s the choice. Sanders is pushing inspiration, and what he terms a political revolution that would eventually produce a swerve in the political direction of the country. Clinton is talking in more practical terms, about how she’s already prepared to do the job of president as she sees it.