Finley: Flint could backfire on Clinton

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Flint — Hillary Clinton centered the Democratic presidential campaign on this long suffering city because she saw an opportunity to contrast the bottom line governing philosophy of Republicans against her promise to fight for the powerless.

“Your government at all levels has let down you, your children and all the people of Flint,” Clinton said during Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Whiting Auditorium, just after calling on Gov. Rick Snyder to resign or be recalled.

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But when asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper if Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, should also step down, Clinton evaded, unwilling to hold a Democrat to the same standard of accountability she demanded of the Republican.

Clinton’s premise a Repbublican governor poisoned city residents with lead-tainted water to save a few bucks cleanly steps over an inconvenient truth: Government doesn’t work. It doesn’t work whether it is run by Republicans or Democrats. It doesn’t work in Washington or Lansing. It doesn’t work in Flint or Detroit.

Flint was indeed a failure of government at every level, exposing the reality that the entrenched, incompetent bureaucracy serves its own interest, and not the people’s. Voters understand that, and it’s one reason they’re so angry. They won’t be assauged by a candidate who sees that failure in pure partisan terms.

Flint is a problem for Clinton because she is the lone champion of government left in this presidential race. She is offering an electorate distrustful and resentful of their political leaders a vision of America that makes the political class even more muscular.

Her opponent, Bernie Sanders, also would make government far larger, no doubt, but not before destroying the status quo.

Sanders picked up three more states in the weekend’s primary voting, and drew thousands of believers to rallies across Michigan over the past few days. He will not be the Democratic nominee — an organizational disadvantage and the rigged Democratic Party nominating process make that all but impossible — but the fact that a previously obscure Vermont socialist is still giving Clinton fits speaks to the weakness of her strategy of upholding for Big Government.

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Clinton’s misread of the national mood explains why her historic bid for the White House is generating so little enthusiasm.

The prospect of electing the first woman president should be exciting Democratic voters, particularly women. But through the first 15 primaries, 3 million fewer Democrats have cast ballots than in 2008, when Barack Obama was bidding to make history.

Clinton lacks the two key promises voters saw in Obama eight years ago: Hope. Change.

She is the establishment in a year when voters crave outsiders. She’s an ardent partisan at a time when voters are sick of politics.

She said again on the debate stage that had the Flint water disaster happened in a more affluent, whiter community of Michigan, it would have been fixed in a minute, if it happened at all. That’s likely true for a lot of reasons. But no one believes if it happened in a state with a Democratic governor, Clinton would be such a passionate scold.

Clinton’s full embrace Sunday night of the Obama administration agenda soothes the party’s traditionalists, perhaps, but it’s a risky message for the general campaign, when three-quarters of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and more than half disapprove of Obama’s performance.

More of the same not going to drive voters to the polls in November.

Turnout will matter. Donald Trump, while repelling a lot of Republicans, is drawing new voters to the party, and they’re wild about their man. Voters are more likely to show up to vote for a candidate than against one.

Sanders’ surprising performance in this races and the lackluster Democratic primary participation proves many Democrats share the desire for something different in this election. Clinton came across in Flint as the same old stuff.

The Flint crisis could have been a larger score for Clinton, had she been willing to to attack the full breadth of the breakdown in government, rather than tailor her finger-pointing to suit her own political needs.