Hillary Clinton is not cool. That's okay.

She is deeply and truly a pragmatic incrementalist. There's nothing romantic about that.

Hillary Clinton isn't relying on her coolness to sway voters.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

Few things get a political campaign's blood pumping like secretly recorded audio of their opponent, the hope being that what the candidate said might be used against her the way Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark was. Once her dark heart is revealed, all will turn away from her in disgust! Or so Republicans no doubt hoped when they heard that a new recording had emerged of Hillary Clinton telling a group of donors at a fundraiser in February what she thought of the young people supporting Bernie Sanders' campaign. Her contempt would finally be clear for all to see, and those young people would... well, maybe not vote for Donald Trump, but at least not vote for Clinton.

Well, it turned out not to be the shocking controversy some had anticipated, not only because it was overshadowed by the three or four contemporaneous controversies Trump had created for himself, but also because the recording mostly showed Clinton being empathetic and understanding, and not dismissive, toward the young people backing her opponent. And it showed something else: Hillary Clinton knows exactly why she couldn't excite young people, and seems to know there's not much she can do about it.

Let's look at what Clinton actually said about those idealistic youngsters filling up Sanders' rallies:

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"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. [Hillary Clinton]

I'd disagree only slightly with Clinton on this analysis: While what she says is true, the attraction of young people to the candidate making grandiose claims about what's possible and promising a revolution would have been nearly the same even if they weren't disillusioned about their current prospects. It comes from the simple fact that they're young. I don't mean that as an insult. It's just that young people are less burdened by the political disappointments of the past and more imaginative about the political future. The candidate who says, "Yes it would be nice to pass single payer but let's be realistic and think about incremental reforms we can make to the Affordable Care Act" is a lot like the parent who says, "Yes it would be nice if your band hits it big, but why don't you take the LSAT just in case." They might have a point, but that doesn't mean it's what you want to hear.

Bernie Sanders was able to tell young people a story within which they could situate themselves: This revolution we're creating together will sweep out the old corrupt order and bring about a new, more humane one. It was inspiring and exciting and dramatic, even if its leader was an unlikely one (and that very unlikeliness became its own kind of hipster appeal). Clinton told no such story about her own candidacy, at least not one in which young people could find themselves. Clinton couldn't inspire them, not only because their candidate argued that she was a representative of that corrupt system, but because she is deeply and truly a pragmatic incrementalist. For her, governing is a tough slog, at the end of which, if all goes well, you will have made progress in improving people's lives. It's not full of joy and glory; it's full of work and setbacks and more work.

That doesn't mean plenty of people can't find inspiration in Clinton's candidacy. If you're a middle-aged woman who had to scrape and claw your way through a sexist society and workplace to make a career for yourself, who knows what it's like to have to work twice as hard as other people to succeed and still have to put up with people asking why you don't smile more, Clinton's dogged persistence can be inspiring — because you can find your story in hers. But young people don't find their story there.

Finding a story that can inspire broad swaths of the electorate is partly about who the candidate is and partly the historical moment in which she finds herself. In 2008, Barack Obama told a brilliant story that enabled not just young people but also the not-so-young to place themselves alongside him. It was about not just hope and change, but the idea that after growing up as a spectator to history, where you just watched momentous events play out on television, you could shape history yourself. His campaign found ways to reinforce that idea at every level; for instance, they made sure to give volunteers a sense of agency, by letting them design their own signs or set up their own pages on the campaign's website. And of course, Obama himself was young, multiracial, cosmopolitan, and cool, not just a figure to admire but someone so many would have liked to be. Supporting him was its own declaration of identity.

During this year's primaries, among young people there was nothing cool about supporting Hillary Clinton. She was the candidate of sober pragmatism and accommodation to the basics of the status quo, and there's nothing romantic about that. She couldn't be anything else.

But at this point, Clinton is not asking young people for very much. They don't need to write songs about her, they don't need to tattoo her face on their skin, and they don't need to join her revolution, since she isn't starting one. All they need to do is vote for her, and she'll take it from there. That wasn't enough to win them over against Bernie Sanders, but it might be enough to get them to the polls against Donald Trump.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine and a blogger for The Washington Post. His writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, and he is the author or co-author of four books on media and politics.