Opinion: Despite Trump’s spin, Hillary Clinton’s ‘basement’ tape speaks to empathy and realism

Hackers are once again shaking up the craziest presidential race in modern memory.

Last week they released an email stolen from a campaign staffer for Hillary Clinton that included a recording of Clinton speaking to a group of supporters in February. Most of the 49-minute session was devoted to thorny and unsexy topics like the United States’ long-range missile program and the Affordable Care Act. But because this election is all about taking garbage and pressure-cooking it until it explodes, one quote has been making media headlines: that Clinton said Bernie Sanders’ supporters were “living in their parents’ basements.”

It’s a good pull-quote for the right. You can see why Fox and Friends’ Tucker Carlson said, analyzing a heavily edited snippet of audio, that “this is basically ‘clinging to their guns and Bibles’ — [Clinton’s saying] all these losers in the middle of the country, who aren’t as rich as I, are making bad choices because they’re dumb.” The Trump campaign immediately spun it into their “Crooked Hillary Question of the Day,” encouraging supporters to ask if she thinks these millennials “also belong in the ‘basket of deplorables?’” At a Pennsylvania rally, Trump told the crowd Clinton thinks Sanders supporters are “hopeless and ignorant.”

Sanders himself was less bothered by the tape. “If you listen to the whole discussion that she had,” he told CNN Sunday, “a very important point that she made is that a lot of young people who went into debt, worked very hard to get a good education, can’t find a job commensurate to the education that they received.”

As a millennial listening to Clinton’s speech, I didn’t feel derided. Many of my friends are baristas, or underemployed, or struggling to find meaningful work


The main problem is that, like so much else in this election, people cherry-pick that which reinforces their already-determined viewpoint, then parrot it out to the wider world. That’s why you need to read the full 110 words of Clinton’s remarks, not just the one short sentence cited by her critics:

“It is important to recognize what’s going on in this election. Everybody who’s ever been in an election that I’m aware of is quite bewildered because there is a strain of, on the one hand, the kind of populist, nationalist, xenophobic, discriminatory kind of approach that we hear too much of from the Republican candidates. And on the other side, there’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.

So as a friend of mine said the other day, I am occupying from the center-left to the center-right. And I don’t have much company there. Because it is difficult when you’re running to be president, and you understand how hard the job is — I don’t want to overpromise. I don’t want to tell people things that I know we cannot do.

Some are new to politics completely. They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future. I met with a group of young black millennials today and you know one of the young women said, “You know, none of us feel that we have the job that we should have gotten out of college. And we don’t believe the job market is going to give us much of a chance.”

So that is a mindset that is really affecting their politics. And so if you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.

So I think we should all be really understanding of that and should try to do the best we can not to be, you know, a wet blanket on idealism. We want people to be idealistic. We want them to set big goals. But to take what we can achieve now and try to present them as bigger goals.”

None of this should come as news to millennials. In 2014, for the first time in over 130 years, more millennials were living in their parents’ homes than with a spouse or partner. When nearly a third of an entire generation indeed lives with their parents — if not in a basement, then in a childhood bedroom or a spare room — it’s not terribly offensive to recognize it. We did grow up as Children of the Great Recession; we were the generation that graduated high school or college in 2008; we have had fear baked into us in a way that Generation X did not.

We are also more liberal than our predecessors. We believe in social safety nets because we know the need for them is great; we believe in policy that promotes greater class integration because we’ve seen our country’s middle-class wracked by Wall Street’s carelessness. Bernie Sanders picked up more millennial votes in the primaries than Clinton and Trump combined. He got it.

Sanders represented — and represents — a progressive movement that is to the far left of Clinton. Both Clinton’s detractors and supporters on the left would rate her as she rates herself here, as representing “the center-left to the center right.” For that matter, Obama ran in the same swath of terrain. Obama promised a change in the way in which we thought about ourselves and our country, and how we articulated our values through policy. The election of our first black president symbolized progress to many voters. But Obama never promised political revolution to the extent Sanders did.

As a millennial listening to Clinton’s talk, I didn’t feel derided. Many of my friends are baristas, or underemployed, or struggling to find meaningful work; many are idealistic; many have a desire for free college, free healthcare; many of their aspirations have been stunted by crippling loans and living costs. Sanders identified and promised to alleviate a very real suffering. But his campaign failed to acknowledge the opposition the candidate would face in Congress if elected. His ideas are beautiful to many of us, yet she was not cynical to recognize their impossibility. In a section of her speech that’s been far less excerpted, Clinton says:

“In order to have a revolution, we have to take back the Senate and get to 60 votes. Then we gotta take back the House, and that may require some redistricting in order to get people out of safe Republican seats so they can be competitive again. I think we’re already in like year six or seven of a two-year term, so those of us who understand this … know that it’s a false promise.

“But I don’t think you tell idealistic people that, particularly young people, that you’ve bought into a false promise…. We have to live in this space of what we can do, here’s what’s achievable, and here’s a lot of people we can help right away, and if we all do our part we can all get more better jobs with rising incomes which will help you too.”

How you see this statement has more to do with who you are than what she’s saying. Clinton’s way of talking about policy is not as sexy or glamorous as her opponents’, as she readily admits. It’s a more complicated pitch than Making America Great Again with a Secret Plan, or Overturning the American Political System. But a politician who deeply feels the struggles of young people and acknowledges how many congressional seats are needed for a revolution is both rare and valuable.

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.