“There it is,” Jed Bartlet said softly, pointing at his opponent across the presidential debate stage. “That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There is it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we gonna do it? Give me ten after that. I’ll drop outta the race right now.”
It was the fall of 2002, early in the fourth season of NBC’s hit political drama The West Wing, and Martin Sheen’s erudite Democratic president was landing his final, crushing blow against his Republican opponent—a dimwitted southern governor created by writer Aaron Sorkin to evoke George W. Bush. In the real world two years earlier, Al Gore had lost a debate with Bush by appearing condescending. And two years later, nuance and complexity would trip up John Kerry in his own bid against Bush. But on this night, in the fantasy world of primetime TV, technocratic and intellectual liberalism had its moment. “There aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words,” Bartlet said. “I’m the president of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.”
No one on the left had a problem with it. Though Bartlet’s fictional presidency looks centrist in retrospect, he was at the time the perfect vehicle for progressive escapism. “For liberals in particular,” Juli Weiner wrote in Vanity Fair in 2012, “Martin Sheen’s Nobel Prize-winning, Latin-speaking President Bartlet was a soothing foil to George W. Bush’s down-home anti-intellectualism and execrable consonant swallowin’; it was as if each week Sorkin and his colleagues were writing the counter-factual, shoulda-been history of the Gore administration.” One of the show’s main appeals was that, as Bartlet press secretary C.J. Cregg put it in that 2002 episode, “complexity isn’t a vice.”
Today, complexity is indeed regarded as a vice by a growing number of Democrats, who point to Hillary Clinton’s defeat last fall—and to Bernie Sanders’s enduring popularity—as evidence that the party should eschew nuance in favor of simplicity. “I think we need to be in the business of communicating big, easy-to-understand ideas to people in a way that we didn’t in 2016,” Senator Chris Murphy told Politico last week. “Donald Trump had very dangerous ideas, but they were easy to get your head wrapped around. Hillary Clinton had very good ideas, but they were so obtuse that few understood them.”
Some Democrats aren’t having it. “Where was she obtuse?” asked Bob Lehrman, a former Gore speechwriter. “In the debates? In her convention speech? I don’t think she was obtuse at all.” He added, “By the way, if he used the word ‘obtuse’ in a speech, probably only a third of Americans would know what the word meant.”
This debate might seem like yet another proxy battle between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, as represented by Clinton and Sanders, respectively, during last year’s bitter Democratic primary. But if so, the progressive wing is winning. Even Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate last year, thinks the Democrats need to simplify their message. “We are wonky people and usually have a ten point plan with multiple sub-points about jobs and the economy,” he wrote in USA Today in May. “Complexity doesn’t communicate well and we seldom deliver an economic message that really sticks.”
This debate is better understood as part of the Democratic Party’s soul searching—or grasping, some might say—since Donald Trump’s shocking victory. Democrats weren’t complaining about Clinton’s complexity back in 2015, when she entered the presidential race as the supposedly prohibitive favorite, and they likely wouldn’t be complaining today if she had beaten Trump. It’s only because she lost that so many Democrats—including incrementalists who previously favored political realism over policy idealism—see virtue in Sanders’s messaging.
Regardless, this represents a significant shift in the Democratic Party, which last won the White House with a politician who was anything but simplistic. The question is whether it’s politically wise for the party to move away from detail and nuance—and whether it even makes a difference if they do so.
The West Wing preached complexity at a time when it was in short supply in the White House, but that changed with the election of Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor every bit as intellectual as Bartlet; his administration was packed with staffers inspired by the show. Dee Dee Myers, the Bill Clinton press secretary who consulted on The West Wing, gushed in Vanity Fair that Obama wasn’t “cowed by complexity.” Describing one of his early press conferences, she wrote, “He gave long, thoughtful answers to serious, compound questions (virtually every reporter’s query contained multiple parts). In fact, he went on so long—some might even say he filibustered—that he answered only 13 questions in nearly 60 minutes.... But in every response, the mindless repetition of talking points gave way to a deeper, more nuanced analysis.”
But after Clinton failed to succeed Obama, some argued that her predilection for wonkiness caused her to get lost in the weeds, in contrast to Trump’s simple, memorable campaign pledges. “Clinton had the whiff of Ivy League arrogance,” Glenn Thrush wrote at Politico the day after the election, “and spoke with the technocratic complexity of the Federal Register, coming across as a liberal given to lecturing Americans not inspiring them.” Some Democrats, like Murphy, now believe Sanders would have done better on this score. “There’s nobody better in our party than Bernie at communicating big, easy-to-understand ideas,” he said.
Like the Sanders campaign itself, the new Democratic case for simplicity is a break from the Obama tradition. Obama may have run on “hope and change,” but his policies couldn’t fairly be derided by critics as pie-in-the-sky. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait observed last January, Obama used his soaring speeches in 2008 to promote bipartisanship and relatively moderate policy ends, at least compared to Sanders’s. “No candidate had ever made pragmatism and compromise so uplifting,” Chait wrote. “Obamaism was a promise to reason together; it was lyrical technocracy.”
Those close to Obama acknowledge this openly. During last year’s primary, former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau described the president as closer to Clinton because of their shared pragmatism. Yet on Pod Save America in late July, Favreau suggested this quality might be a poor fit for Trump-era Democrats, since “sometimes the pragmatism and the practicality gets us into slogans and white papers that aren’t as big and bold.” Jon Lovett, Favreau’s podcast co-host and fellow Obama speechwriting alum, described the problem this way:
Bernie Sanders comes out for a $15 minimum wage. The Democratic establishment takes that and puts it through a machine and out pops a modified version that kind of gets you there slowly, through states, etc. Bernie Sanders has a universal college proposal. It goes through the Democratic machine—and I’m not faulting the Hillary Clinton campaign for this; this is the Democratic consensus of what should happen—and out pops a more complicated version that’s more responsible, ostensibly, because it’s more affordable.
Lovett asked their guests, MSNBC host Joy Reid and former Sanders press secretary Symone Sanders, “Do you think that there’s a lesson there around how we make policy as a party? Have we been having a debate with ourselves that results in a kind of 40-page white paper? And do we need to be, for lack of a better word, more daring and a little bit less governing in our campaigns?”
“Yessss,” Reid said, clearly frustrated. “Democrats were so white-papered and so eggheaded about the election that they forgot to say why they would be better for those Rust Belt states.” Which isn’t to say Reid was convinced by Sanders’s approach. She noted that his message of “political revolution” didn’t appeal to older black voters, the the electoral base of the Democratic Party. She argued for a more traditional jobs message to reach this group, adding, “Most Democrats are pragmatic voters.”
Symone Sanders told me this week that Clinton couldn’t have won the election by emulating the rhetoric of her primary rival because it would have come across as inauthentic. Elvin Lim, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, agreed, saying that Clinton had to sell her experience. “If Hillary Clinton had been simplistic and sloganist, it wouldn’t have worked for her,” he said.
Clinton herself seems to acknowledge as much in her new campaign memoir, What Happened. For instance, she cites this Facebook post in explaining her struggle with what she deemed Sanders’s unrealistic approach to policy:
Bernie: “I think America should get a pony.”
Hillary: “How will you pay for the pony? Where will the pony come from? How will you get Congress to agree to the pony?”
Bernie: “Hillary thinks America doesn’t deserve a pony.”
Bernie Supporters: “Hillary hates ponies!”
Hillary: “Actually, I love ponies.”
Headline: HILLARY REFUSES TO GIVE EVERY AMERICAN A PONY.
Debate Moderator: “Hillary, how do you feel when people say you lie about ponies?”
US Uncut Headline: Congressional Inquiry into Clinton’s Pony Lies.
Twitter trending: #ponygate
Clinton is arguing that a candidate shouldn’t run on aspirational policy goals without concrete, plausible plans to enact them. But that criticism doesn’t sit well with some on the left. New York magazine’s Eric Levitz argued last week that many of Clinton’s own policies were politically implausible. “Campaigning on long-term ideological goals is both legitimate and electorally sound,” he continued. “To champion policies that have little chance of immediate passage is not an inherently cynical exercise. In fact, it’s often a prerequisite for major reforms.” And if Sanders’s campaign proved anything, it’s that championing such policies—their political odds be damned—can dramatically shape the direction of the party.
Symone Sanders believes the big, bold rhetoric of Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution” is paying dividends for the very Democratic Party that he still keeps at arm’s length. This week, she credited his campaign with starting the fast-growing Democratic momentum for single-payer healthcare. “That’s literally how the fuck we got here,” she told me. One lesson of the campaign, in her view, is that “there’s danger in telling the American people they have to temper their expectations,” adding, “Did Secretary Clinton have greater detail and specificity in her plans in general than Senator Sanders? I would say yes. Does that necessarily make her plans better? I would say no.”
Even as she calls Sanders the “new model of how to boldly and authentically talk about yourself and the issues,” she’d rather Democrats try to replicate the man who recently won two presidential elections. “On the campaign trail, Obama is the model,” she said. “He had the perfect mix of wonkiness with hope and change.”
But Obama was a world-historical political talent, which is why Democrats like Murphy don’t think he holds many lessons for the party moving forward. “I think Barack Obama was a once-in-lifetime candidate,” Murphy told me, with “an intellect and communications style no one is going to match.” The senator believes much of Obama’s success rested on sheer force of personality, which is why he thinks the better bet is Sanders’s approach: policy simplicity. “We have a lot of smart people in our party,” he said, “and it often means our economic ideas are worthy but sometimes weedy. Bernie is such a great leader in part because he is able to communicate important simple ideas about his economic vision.... I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel, but our focus needs to be on picking a few big economic ideas or principles and repeating them.”
Lehrman, the Gore speechwriter, thinks Clinton vastly improved as a public speaker since her 2008 presidential campaign, and argued that her rhetorical style ultimately “played a very minor role in the election.” He attributes her loss to factors ranging from her email scandal to the controversial role former FBI Director James Comey played in the campaign to the warped nature of the electoral college itself. And both he and Lim believe the debate over simplicity versus complexity isn’t pivotal for the Democratic Party. Lim says it’s more important that Democrats nominate a more magnetic candidate than Clinton was. “If you’re intellectual, you can be forgiven if you’re liked. If you’re unlikable, nothing can save you,” he told me. “I say this recognizing the deeply gendered nature of what I just said.” He added, “Whether or not you are complex or simple, intellectual or not, is a secondary trait. I would hope that Democrats go first for that strategy—picking a likable person with charisma and all that—and then worry about whether they simplify their message.”
Lehrman and Lim diverge, however, over the political value of rhetorical simplicity. Lehrman believes speeches should be accessible, written for the average American to understand. But Lim laments the decline in sophistication of presidential rhetoric. “We cannot have this perpetual dumbing down,” he told me. He acknowledges that it’s rhetorically effective for candidates, but believes it has deleterious effect on society: “The collective outcome of this completely rational strategy is the complete evisceration of the quality of public discourse.”
That’s exactly the kind of critique you might expect from The West Wing, where characters say earnest things like, “We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.” The surest path forward, if Democrats are to borrow from Sanders heading into the midterms, is what Murphy told me when I asked him if he was advocating the abandonment of complexity: “I think underneath the big, easy-to-understand ideas can be a second level of nuance.”
Even Clinton concedes the value of an aspirational approach. Interviewing her on Tuesday’s Pod Save America, Lovett said, “One of the points you make in the lessons from all of this is that [Bernie Sanders] has a point about the importance of universal programs—that arguing for big, universal college or healthcare ... makes a lot of sense to people. First of all, it’s clear and easy for people to understand, and also it avoids the kind of stigma you have on things that are more directed.” Clinton replied, “It’s what I do recommend that we try to figure out, but if you’re going to do it, you gotta be able to answer all the questions that are going to be raised.”
Clinton is right that Democrats can’t simply borrow Sanders’s style without also having substance. They have to be able to defend their ideas effectively, especially if those ideas raise eyebrows. The Republicans’ “repeal and replace” debacle showed what happens when catchy slogans aren’t undergirded by policy substance. But the nature of new ideas is they’re underdeveloped as policy, and Democrats shouldn’t shrink from ambition just because the party’s policy apparatus hasn’t caught up to its base. Besides, sometimes the greatest ideas—like free college for all, or healthcare for everyone—are profound in their simplicity.
If complexity isn’t a vice, neither is simplicity, necessarily. Whereas Trump’s ten-word answers represent the full depth of his intellect, Sanders is hardly some anti-intellectual rube. Part of the reason all of his ideas weren’t as detailed as Clinton’s was the absence of a policy infrastructure on the left for aspirational goals like single-payer. And yet, they have had a tangible impact on the future of the Democratic Party. As Symone Sanders put it so colorfully to me, this is “how the fuck we got here”—to a Medicare-for-all bill with at least 15 supporters in the Senate, including some of the leading Democratic presidential prospects for 2020.
There’s no telling what will appeal most to the electorate next fall, to say nothing of the next presidential cycle. In the meantime, Democrats should take this moment to expand their policy imagination and rally behind their best, biggest, boldest ideas. There’s plenty of time to work out the details.