“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

There’s no direct evidence Abraham Lincoln ever said that – two decades after Lincoln died, someone said he said that – but that doesn’t matter much now. He should have said that. That sounds like him, and it’s a useful observation, cleverly put.

It’s also the key proposition against which all American politics is tested. Running for political office is a matter of fooling people into thinking you’re wonderful, all of them for a brief period, if possible, a few of them forever, if possible, while knowing that no one is perfect and knowing you’ll never really pull it off. You cannot fool all the people all the time – but you can come close. You just have to find the sweet spot, where just enough people decide you’re not bullshitting them and you might be okay – just enough people to win that one election on that one specific day. Then you can move on and do whatever you were going to do anyway. Those who voted for you might be disappointed, but it’s too late for that, isn’t it? You won.

There’s a less cynical way to look at that – if you cannot fool all the people all the time, or anyone, really, then the only way to win elections is to be totally authentic, to be unapologetically honest at all times. People sense bullshit, eventually. Avoid it – advice no successful politician was ever given. Tailor you message to specific constituencies, first one then the other, or lose them. You do need to fool some of the people all the time, making sure they understand where you stand on their particular issues, which is with them, even if no one noticed before. This was the “triangulation” strategy that Bill Clinton used so successfully – a little something for everybody with as little disappointment as possible elsewhere. He was the Democrat who said “the era of big government was over” – he outflanked the Republicans, even if many liberal Democrats grumbled – but he was with them on other issues. He successfully kept everyone off balance.

Can his wife do that? She’s having a little more difficulty with that:

Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her double-digit defeat in the New Hampshire primary, repeatedly challenged Bernie Sanders’s trillion-dollar policy plans at their presidential debate on Thursday night and portrayed him as a big talker who needed to “level” with voters about the difficulty of accomplishing his agenda.

This new line of attack was a risky attempt to puncture Mr. Sanders’s growing popularity before the next nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina. Mrs. Clinton is wagering that voters will care that Mr. Sanders has not provided a political strategy or clear financing plan to enact Medicare for all and provide free public colleges, and that such details will matter more to voters than his inspiring political message.

Yes, another debate – she says don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders – what he wants to do, while wonderful, cannot possible be done. He says don’t be fooled by Hillary Clinton – she’s more of the same – nothing good will ever get done by someone who doesn’t dream big, however experienced and competent that person is. It was more of the same – read on if you want the details – but there was a twist to this one. The caucuses in overwhelmingly white evangelical Iowa or over – the two of them essentially tied. The primary in overwhelmingly white flinty and grumpy New Hampshire is over – she lost badly. But next is heavily Hispanic Nevada with its caucuses, followed by the primary in South Carolina, where more than sixty percent of the Democrats are African-American. It was time to adjust:

Several of Mrs. Clinton’s answers reflected an urgent political imperative: to maintain and energize her deep support among minority voters in order to offset Mr. Sanders’s popularity with young people, liberals and some working-class white voters. Mr. Sanders won support from 83 percent of New Hampshire voters ages 18 to 29, and 60 percent of the liberal base there, according to exit polls, while Mrs. Clinton did best with older and wealthier voters.

She has pivoted quickly this week to highlight new endorsements from the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus and to target a new television commercial at black voters in South Carolina, where the Feb. 27 primary is now a must-win contest for her.

That might not be easy:

In her opening statement, Mrs. Clinton denounced discrimination against African-Americans in employment, education, housing and the criminal justice system. But she was matched by Mr. Sanders as he railed against a legal system in which young people have criminal records because of petty drug offenses while Wall Street executives escaped culpability for the great recession.

“Look, we are fighting for every vote that we can get, from women, from men, straight, gay, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans,” Mr. Sanders said. “We are trying to bring America together around an agenda that works for working families and the middle class.”

He has a point, and Michelle Alexander says she doesn’t in Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote:

Hillary Clinton loves black people. And black people love Hillary – or so it seems. Black politicians have lined up in droves to endorse her, eager to prove their loyalty to the Clintons in the hopes that their faithfulness will be remembered and rewarded. Black pastors are opening their church doors, and the Clintons are making themselves comfortably at home once again, engaging effortlessly in all the usual rituals associated with “courting the black vote,” a pursuit that typically begins and ends with Democratic politicians making black people feel liked and taken seriously. Doing something concrete to improve the conditions under which most black people live is generally not required.

Hillary is looking to gain momentum on the campaign trail as the primaries move out of Iowa and New Hampshire and into states like South Carolina, where large pockets of black voters can be found. According to some polls, she leads Bernie Sanders by as much as 60 percent among African Americans. It seems that we – black people – are her winning card, one that Hillary is eager to play.

And it seems we’re eager to get played. Again.

Yes, there’s a history here:

The love affair between black folks and the Clintons has been going on for a long time. It began back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president. He threw on some shades and played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. It seems silly in retrospect, but many of us fell for that. At a time when a popular slogan was “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” Bill Clinton seemed to get us. When Toni Morrison dubbed him our first black president, we nodded our heads. We had our boy in the White House. Or at least we thought we did.

Black voters have been remarkably loyal to the Clintons for more than twenty-five years. It’s true that we eventually lined up behind Barack Obama in 2008, but it’s a measure of the Clinton allure that Hillary led Obama among black voters until he started winning caucuses and primaries. Now Hillary is running again. This time she’s facing a democratic socialist who promises a political revolution that will bring universal healthcare, a living wage, an end to rampant Wall Street greed, and the dismantling of the vast prison state – many of the same goals that Martin Luther King Jr. championed at the end of his life. Even so, black folks are sticking with the Clinton brand.

Alexander doesn’t get it:

What have the Clintons done to earn such devotion? Did they take extreme political risks to defend the rights of African Americans? Did they courageously stand up to right-wing demagoguery about black communities? Did they help usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for neighborhoods devastated by deindustrialization, globalization, and the disappearance of work?

The answer to that should be obvious:

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, urban black communities across America were suffering from economic collapse. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs had vanished as factories moved overseas in search of cheaper labor, a new plantation. Globalization and deindustrialization affected workers of all colors but hit African Americans particularly hard. Unemployment rates among young black men had quadrupled as the rate of industrial employment plummeted. Crime rates spiked in inner-city communities that had been dependent on factory jobs, while hopelessness, despair, and crack addiction swept neighborhoods that had once been solidly working-class. Millions of black folks – many of whom had fled Jim Crow segregation in the South with the hope of obtaining decent work in Northern factories – were suddenly trapped in racially segregated, jobless ghettos.

On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton made the economy his top priority and argued persuasively that conservatives were using race to divide the nation and divert attention from the failed economy. In practice, however, he capitulated entirely to the right-wing backlash against the civil-rights movement and embraced former president Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes – ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.

Yeah, someone was fooled:

We should have seen it coming. Back then, Clinton was the standard-bearer for the New Democrats, a group that firmly believed the only way to win back the millions of white voters in the South who had defected to the Republican Party was to adopt the right-wing narrative that black communities ought to be disciplined with harsh punishment rather than coddled with welfare. Reagan had won the presidency by dog-whistling to poor and working-class whites with coded racial appeals: railing against “welfare queens” and criminal “predators” and condemning “big government.” Clinton aimed to win them back, vowing that he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.

Just weeks before the critical New Hampshire primary, Clinton proved his toughness by flying back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him for later. After the execution, Clinton remarked, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”

That was a warning sign of things to come:

Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs – those wars were declared before Reagan was elected and long before crack hit the streets – but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible. He supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement.

Clinton championed the idea of a federal “three strikes” law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, months later, signed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces. The legislation was hailed by mainstream-media outlets as a victory for the Democrats, who “were able to wrest the crime issue from the Republicans and make it their own.”

When Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983. All of the presidents since 1980 have contributed to mass incarceration, but as Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently observed, “President Clinton’s tenure was the worst.”

Well, it happened, but what about Hillary Clinton? Alexander is not impressed:

Some might argue that it’s unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago. But Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

Both Clintons now express regret over the crime bill, and Hillary says she supports criminal-justice reforms to undo some of the damage that was done by her husband’s administration. … To be fair, the Clintons now feel bad about how their politics and policies have worked out for black people. Bill says that he “overshot the mark” with his crime policies; and Hillary has put forth a plan to ban racial profiling, eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and abolish private prisons, among other measures.

But what about a larger agenda that would not just reverse some of the policies adopted during the Clinton era, but would rebuild the communities decimated by them? If you listen closely here, you’ll notice that Hillary Clinton is still singing the same old tune in a slightly different key. She is arguing that we ought not to be seduced by Bernie’s rhetoric because we must be “pragmatic,” “face political realities,” and not get tempted to believe that we can fight for economic justice and win. When politicians start telling you that it is “unrealistic” to support candidates who want to build a movement for greater equality, fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to corporate control of our political system, it’s probably best to leave the room.

Alexander sees what’s what here:

Sanders opposed the 1996 welfare-reform law. He also opposed bank deregulation and the Iraq War, both of which Hillary supported, and both of which have proved disastrous. In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it.

In short, Alexander is not impressed with the Clintons continuing to test the proposition that you can fool at least some of the people all the time, and the New York Times’ Charles Blow adds this:

This support for Clinton, particular among African-American voters, is for some perplexing and for others irritating.

I cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me on social media that they don’t understand this support. “Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?” the argument generally goes. But from there, it can lead to a comparison between Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to an assertion that Sanders is the Barack Obama that we really wanted and needed; to an exasperated “black people are voting against their interests” stance.

If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood – now and over their lifetimes – they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.

No only likes being taken for a fool, but that may be what is going on here:

Tucked among all this Bernie-splaining by some supporters, it appears to me, is a not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage that I find so grossly offensive that it boggles the mind that such language should emanate from the mouths – or keyboards – of supposed progressives.

But then I am reminded that the idea that black folks are infantile and must be told what to do and what to think is not confined by ideological barriers. The ideological difference is that one side prefers punishment and the other pity, and neither is a thing in which most black folks delight.

Think of it this way:

It is not so much that black voters love Clinton and loathe Sanders. … For many there isn’t much passion for either candidate. Instead, black folks are trying to keep their feet planted in reality and choose from among politicians who have historically promised much and delivered little. It is often a choice between the devil you know and the one you don’t, or more precisely, among the friend who betrays you, the stranger who entices you and the enemy who seeks to destroy you.

That’s not much of a choice, and also a black thing:

It is not black folks who need to come to a new understanding, but those whose privileged gaze prevents them from seeing that black thought and consciousness is informed by a bitter history, a mountain of disappointment and an ocean of tears.

And to illustrate that he cites a passage from James Baldwin:

Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives. It is true that the promises excite them, but this is not because they are taken as proof of good intentions. They are the proof of something more concrete than intentions: that the Negro situation is not static, that changes have occurred, and are occurring and will occur – this, in spite of the daily, dead-end monotony. It is this daily, dead-end monotony, though, as well as the wise desire not to be betrayed by too much hoping, which causes them to look on politicians with such an extraordinarily disenchanted eye.

This fatalistic indifference is something that drives the optimistic American liberal quite mad; he is prone, in his more exasperated moments, to refer to Negroes as political children, an appellation not entirely just. Negro liberals, being consulted, assure us that this is something that will disappear with “education,” a vast, all-purpose term, conjuring up visions of sunlit housing projects, stacks of copybooks and a race of well-soaped, dark-skinned people who never slur their R’s. Actually, this is not so much political irresponsibility as the product of experience, experience which no amount of education can quite efface.

Baldwin then speaks to being used:

“Our people” have functioned in this country for nearly a century as political weapons, the trump card up the enemies’ sleeve; anything promised Negroes at election time is also a threat leveled at the opposition; in the struggle for mastery the Negro is the pawn.


Even black folks who don’t explicitly articulate this intuitively understand it. History and experience have burned into the black American psyche a sort of functional pragmatism that will be hard to erase. It is a coping mechanism, a survival mechanism, and its existence doesn’t depend on others’ understanding or approval.

However, that pragmatism could work against the idealism of a candidate like Sanders. Black folks don’t want to be “betrayed by too much hoping,” and Sanders’s proposals, as good as they sound, can also sound too good to be true. There is a whiff of fancifulness.

It seems it’s going to be harder to fool at least some of the people, this constituency, all the time, this time around, but it’s not just a black thing. Gail Collins notes another constituency:

It’s a sad time for Hillary Clinton’s fans. Well, I guess that’s obvious, since she got clobbered in New Hampshire. But it’s the way she went down that was particularly painful. Bernie Sanders got more than half the women’s vote, mainly because younger women raced off to his corner in droves.

That triggered a generational cross-fire. “I’m frustrated and outraged by being constantly attacked by older feminists for my refusal to vote according to my gender,” a college sophomore told CNN.

Women tend to vote for candidates who support a strong social safety net, which is not exactly a problem in the current Democratic race. Historically, they’ve been less likely to show a particular preference for other women. I’ve always generalized that they won’t vote for men who yell. However, it appears that is totally inaccurate when the man in question is shouting, “Medicare for all!”

What worked before just isn’t working now:

The idea of a woman as president is a very important marker for people who grew up in a time when medical schools had tiny quotas for female students, newspapers had “help wanted” ads that divided everything by sex and half the population could get credit only in their husband’s or father’s name. Younger women don’t seem to share that yearning, and there are wounded feelings on both sides.

This is hardly the first time progressive women have had a generational conflict. Once women won the right to vote, the older suffragists wanted to keep battling for equal rights, while many of their juniors felt they had other things to do. “‘Feminism’ has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman,” wrote Dorothy Dunbar Bromley in a famous 1927 essay that suggested militants of the old school had a demoralizing tendency to wear unflattering shoes.

In the modern era, whenever cross-generational sniping occurred, younger women always had a champion in Gloria Steinem. “Their activism is fantastic,” she told me in a post-New Hampshire phone interview. Steinem, a Clinton supporter, was drawn into the fray when, during a TV appearance, she seemed to be suggesting that younger women were supporting Sanders because they wanted to meet boys. She says she misspoke, that she was talking about issues of power, not sex: “The person who’s being written about is not me.” Garbling a message is something that can definitely happen on the umpteenth leg of a book tour, and if anybody has earned the right to be taken at her word, it’s Steinem.

It’s easy to see why Sanders is attracting the youth vote. His events are electric. When he demands free tuition at public colleges and universities, the audience is practically orating with him, calling out their student loans (“Over 200,000, Columbia University graduate school!”). When he goes into his Medicare-for-all health care system, they shout their insurance deductibles (“5,000 … for a single person!”).

Many of those shouting out are young women, so there was this at the debate:

Hillary Clinton defended Madeleine Albright’s comment that “there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women,” remarking that there are still “some barriers to knock down.”

“Well, look I think that she’s been saying that for as long as I’ve known her,” Clinton said of the former secretary of state.

She added that it does not change her goal of empowering everyone, women and men, to make the best decisions on issues related to equal pay and paid family leave.

Turning to moderators Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, Clinton remarked upon the situation on the stage.

“I would note, just for a historic aside, somebody told me earlier we’ve had like 200 presidential primary debates, and this is the first time there have been a majority of women on stage,” she said. “So you know, we’ll take our progress wherever we can find it.”

And just for a historic aside, note that Lincoln was wrong. You cannot fool some of the people – women, blacks – all the time. No one wants to be taken for a fool, but then Lincoln probably never said any of that. He wasn’t that cynical. We are.

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