A water crisis in a Michigan city with 100,000 people wouldn’t seem to be a major political issue on its surface, but Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has seized on the Flint crisis and earned the endorsement of the city’s mayor Tuesday.
Republican candidates asked about the crisis have mostly brushed past it. “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on,” Marco Rubio said in Iowa Monday. But Clinton has made it a centerpiece of her campaign in the past week.
She dedicated her entire closing argument to the issue at Sunday night’s NBC News/YouTube Democratic debate, dispatched a top aide to meet with local officials, spoke about it at a Martin Luther King Day event, and discussed it with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
“A lot of people viewed this as an unusual thing for the secretary to do, but it really isn’t,” Clinton campaign political director Amanda Renteria said on a conference call the campaign arranged to discuss the issue Tuesday afternoon.
So why is Clinton making Flint such an important part of her campaign? It’s a an almost perfect microcosm of her larger strategy:
Race: On the debate stage in South Carolina, Clinton called the water crisis a civil rights issue, saying that it never would have happened in a rich, white city. The argument resonated with the largely African-American audience, perhaps more than anything else said that night, according to several attendees. Clinton’s campaign is banking on black voters, who overwhelmingly support her. And it’s a subtle contrast with rival Bernie Sanders, who has struggled to connect with voters of color and initially viewed racial discrimination more as a subset of economic injustice than an issue on its own.
Competence: Clinton’s closing argument is that she’s the only one capable of being president, unlike others. Her campaign’s approach to this crisis has been nuanced, standing in sharp contrast with that taken by Sanders, whose campaign favors grand gestures. Sanders called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign, a statement that immediately garnered widespread attention but, Clinton aides say, will not actually do anything to help people.
Impact: On Thursday, Clinton spoke to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and chastised Snyder for failing to request federal assistance. Two hours after the interview, the governor made the request. Clinton’s campaign has sought to ground her entire candidacy in the idea that she can have a tangible impact on peoples’ lives. Sanders, they say, is more interested in the ideological struggle.
Taking on Republicans: Always with an eye on the general election, Clinton relishes a fight on policy with Republicans. For a campaign that wants voters to imagine her going to blows with Republicans in the fall — and then in the White House — and winning, her exchange with Snyder creates a good image for her.
“I know Sanders said the governor should step down,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said. “She has actually been the only candidate — the only candidate, whether we’re talking Democrat or Republican — to reach out and actually say, what can I do?”