Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016

WASHINGTON — Whenever some new allegation threatened Bill Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 1992, he had a go-to response throughout the campaign.

“This election isn’t about me,” he’d tell voters. “It’s about you.” He said “you” with such force that it would come out as a two- or three-syllable word.

Hillary Clinton, who has picked up her husband’s locution on occasion, is going to have to run a “you” campaign, too. And last week, she insisted that the ranks of the “you”s out there should include as much of the potential electorate as possible.

From the beginning of 2015, Republicans have enjoyed enormous success in making her campaign all about her — focusing on any aspect of her life (or her husband’s) that might turn off voters otherwise open to her policies. It’s no surprise that her personal ratings have fallen.

Her champions have complained that we know far more about her speech fees and email habits than what she would do in office. Blaming the media is by no means a useless campaign tactic. Republicans do it all the time, claiming that the media are “liberal.” It’s a fatuous charge given how thoroughly reporters have covered every question raised about Clinton. But trashing reporters won’t solve Clinton’s political problems, and might even make some of them worse.

There is only one tried-and-true way for a candidate to displace a story line she doesn’t like, and that is to come up with a new story line of her own. If Clinton wants the campaign to be about how she’d govern, she will have to inundate the media with substance.

She made a good start last week by speaking forcefully about voting rights and reminding the country of how far right the Republican Party has moved over 50 years. Republicans were once at the forefront in tearing down barriers to voting. It fell to segregationist Democrats in the South to defend discriminatory voting laws. Now, it’s Republicans who are trying to shrink the electorate.

On their face, Clinton’s proposals ought to win wide assent. She endorsed “universal, automatic voter registration” under which “every young man or young woman … should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 — unless they actively choose to opt out.” In an era when we have made it so convenient for people to buy and sell things and stay in touch with each other, why do we maintain cumbersome bureaucratic obstacles to exercising a basic democratic right?

Drawing on last year’s bipartisan report from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, she called for establishing the principle that no one should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. She also proposed a national standard of “at least 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere — including opportunities for weekend and evening voting.”

Clinton denounced the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision “eviscerating” the Voting Rights Act, and called out some of her Republican rivals (Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush) for supporting new barriers to voting. Republicans, she said, should stop “fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.”

There’s a bad habit in reporting on voting rights these days. Because those kept from voting by the various new restrictions tend to lean Democratic (especially African-Americans, Latinos, and young people), the issue is typically discussed in partisan terms. And, in fact, as Clinton pointed out, some of the new laws are laughably partisan. Texas, for example, allows a concealed-weapon permit to be used as identification at the polls but not a student ID.

But the core issue here is much larger than current party alignments. It involves the same principle that motivated the sponsors of the Voting Rights Act in 1965: Are we a genuinely democratic republic in which the federal government guarantees broad participation, or will state politicians be allowed to shape the electorate to keep a particular class — i.e., themselves — in power?

The question for the future of American politics is whether Republicans will be forced to moderate and modify their current tilt to the right in response to demographic changes in the electorate, or will they manage to keep enough of the new America away from the polls that they don’t have to listen to it at all?

Clinton can win an election about big questions. She will spend the summer talking about them. And in the process, she, too, will preach the virtues of the elongated “you.”

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. (c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

Photo: Penn State via Flickr