Substance vs. Style

Clinton Makes a Stance for Prose as She Distills Poetry Lessons from Cuomo, Nixon

Hillary Clinton speaks at a CNN event with moderator Chris Cuomo in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 25, 2016.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Pool via Bloomberg

An old saying that politicians can campaign with poetry but must govern with prose has suddenly become fresh inspiration for Hillary Clinton as she looks to manage an enthusiasm gap with Bernie Sanders days before the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton invoked the expression twice during a town hall forum at Drake University on Monday that was moderated by CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, and on Tuesday, back on the campaign trail, she championed the merits of prose.

“This is really hard, slow, painful, political work, to get through the thicket of objections and special interests and powerful forces,” she said at a stop in Decorah, Iowa. Later in Cedar Falls, she said she is “not just shouting slogans. I am not just engaging in rhetoric. I have thought this through, I have a plan. I want you to understand because I don't think you can get what we need done in this election nor in the presidency unless you level with people, you tell them what you can do and then you let them respond to it.”

It was Cuomo’s father, Mario, a Democratic three-time governor of New York who died last year, who popularized the expression “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” in the 1980s. But former Republican President Richard Nixon was using his own version of the truism as far back as the 1960s, and both may owe some inspiration to an observation on the long-term dynamics of marriage by a gay 20th century British writer.

In recent days, President Barack Obama and his former senior adviser David Axelrod, who now directs the nonpartisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, also each referenced the so-called Cuomo Rule in talking about Clinton—Obama in an interview with Politico, Axelrod in a podcast segment he taped with Patti Solis Doyle, a former aide to Clinton and Obama campaign adviser.

Clinton’s experience, intelligence, and knowledge of policy “sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths,” Obama said in the interview, in which he never directly endorsed Clinton but praised her in a way that was viewed as promoting her readiness.

Axelrod recalled the Cuomo line to Solis Doyle and said of Clinton, “She doesn’t seem all that comfortable with the poetry,” to which Solis Doyle responded, “Sometimes that kid in class who always gets the As and is always prepared is not the most inspirational kid in the class, right? But, man, do you want her running the country? Absolutely.”

Even if these references prodded Clinton’s memory, she already knew the expression well. In fact, she had campaigned on it before.

In January 2008, after losing the Iowa caucuses to Obama and two days before pulling off a win in New Hampshire, Clinton told a large crowd in Nashua, “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.” At the time, the columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote that Clinton “may have unintentionally written the obituary” for her candidacy. “If we chose a president by examination rather than election, she would win,” Dionne wrote in 2008. “But it is Obama who may have precisely the right experience for the mood of the moment.”

Ann Lewis, a Democratic strategist and former Clinton adviser, said in an interview on Tuesday that Clinton learned from 2008 just how much voters can crave the poetry and has sought in this election to be more personally accessible.

“If you go back and look at how she’s been campaigning this year, she has been trying to find ways to make that poetic connection,” Lewis said.

“Wonky policy stuff, that is poetry to Hillary Clinton, but she also understands it may not be poetry for everyone,” Lewis said. “She has been more open than I’ve ever seen her in talking about her own emotional stories—about love and kindness. I think it took effort at first but is becoming natural now. You cannot take for granted that people know what your motivations are. Sometimes you have to spell them out and so she is becoming more explicit about the motivations that drive her.”

At the forum on Monday, Clinton said she wanted to be president “for everyone,” Democrats and Republicans alike. Mario Cuomo “said many, many smart things about politics,” she said. “But you might remember he said ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.’

“You know, you can say all the kinds of things you want in a campaign. And we are drawing distinctions with the Republicans, and we should. But, once the election is over we must come together to work to solve the problems facing our country.”

Later, she was asked for her reaction to an emotionally powerful Sanders campaign ad set to the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America.”

“You know, look, you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” Clinton said, repeating the line for different effect. “And we need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country. So, I applaud that.” But while she said she loved the “feeling” and the “energy,” she countered, “I believe that I'm the better person to be the Democratic nominee, and to be the president and commander-in-chief of the country.”

Clinton's stump speech is heavy on acknowledgments of how tough it is to govern, as she recalls her 1993 push for health care reform, her work building an international coalition that imposed sanctions on Iran, and the work she watched her husband and Obama do to respond to economic downturns.

“None of this is easy,” she said about governing on Tuesday in Decorah.

As Sanders has shown his staying power, one of Clinton's steadiest refrains has been that his ideas are nice but not very achievable. In early January, she said Sanders seemed to believe he'd be able to accomplish his agenda with a “magic wand,” a charge she also leveled against Obama. On Thursday in Indianola, she said that “theory isn't enough. A president has to deliver in reality.”

“I am not interested in ideas that sound good on paper but will never make it in the real world,” she said. “I care about making a real difference in your life and that gets to the choice you have to make in this caucus.”

Mario Cuomo was a high-profile Democratic figure in the 1980s and early 1990s, delivering a famous 1984 Democratic National Convention speech and inspiring liberals with his rhetoric, though he never sought the nomination. In a 1985 speech at Yale University, during his first term as governor, Cuomo said that “we campaign in poetry but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose.” The line that became an instant classic and one that Cuomo and others shortened and repeated over the years, including a reference in the NBC White House drama The West Wing.

While a different political figure altogether from Cuomo, Nixon, for all of his discomfort with the glad-handing side of politics, had a similar expression. “Nixon keeps telling us that politics is poetry, not prose,” an unnamed staffer said in an October 1968 profile in Life magazine before Nixon won the presidency. In a meta moment two decades later, in a 1988 appearance on Meet the Press, the disgraced former president said of Democrats that Jesse Jackson and Cuomo were poets while Michael Dukakis was “a word processor.”

Both versions of the sentiment share a common thread with what Beverley Nichols, 20th century British author and journalist remembered most for his writings on gardening, once said about marriage: It is “a book in which the first chapter is written in poetry and the remaining chapters in prose.”

In these last days before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton is “campaigning as who she is” and “making a stance for prose,” Axelrod said in an interview Tuesday.

“I think what she’s saying is, ‘I am not painting utopic pictures, I’m not good at that but what I am good at is relentlessly driving issues to the ground and solving problems and that’s what I offer.’”

“It may or many not work,” he said, “but the fact that it’s authentically who she is gives it a better chance.”