Friday, May 29, 2015

Hillary, the Lesser Evil

The champion of everyday people visits Wall Street

If Barack Obama had not been a candidate for president in 2008, Hillary would almost certainly have been the Democratic nominee, and liberals would have been quite happy about it.  Indeed, she enjoyed strong liberal support at first.  And if she had been elected president, liberals would have been jubilant.  But now that she almost certainly will be the nominee – and quite probably the president, too – they’ve become quite unsure about her.  What gives?  Why did she inspire such passion then and such hesitation now?  Who has changed, Hillary or liberals?

For instance, incontrovertibly liberal New York mayor Bill de Blasio created a minor controversy on NBC’s Meet the Press when he hesitated to endorse her candidacy.  He publicly worried that she’s not liberal enough, and he channeled widespread liberal Hillary-ambivalence when he both applauded her resume and challenged her to present a more starkly liberal economic program. 

And now that Hillary has officially declared herself a candidate and is acting the populist and the “champion” of the people, a crowd of critics has arisen to argue that it’s only an act, that Hillary is as populist as a credit default swap.   The indictment is convincing: she’s very cozy with Wall Street; she’s been part of official Washington since she moved into the White House with Bill in 1993; she’s quite comfortable within the modern American ruling regime of capital, connections, and corruption.  She seems more like part of the problem than the solution; that is, if you think a rapacious, semi-hereditary caste exploiting our economy and undermining our democracy is a problem.

But you don’t have to be to Hillary’s left to suspect her populism.  Conservatives – bless their helpful hearts – doubt her sincerity too, though generally for unconvincing and disingenuous reasons.  If she can’t be a genuine liberal because she has money then how do you explain Teddy Kennedy and FDR?  And conservatives are quite indignant at her call for a constitutional amendment to curtail the political power of corporations, all while she rakes in that dirty Wall Street cash.  Their point seems to be Hillary’s hypocrisy, and the way it reinforces the near-universal perception that she’s phony from top to bottom, that she doesn’t do or say anything that hasn’t been focus-grouped and poll-tested and approved by public relations gurus.  Well, duh.  It seems unlikely that conservatives are complaining that Hillary is not battling vigorously enough against the pernicious influence of big money, i.e. that she’s being insufficiently liberal.

And then there’s the case for the defense, made by Hillary-supporters who insist she is a real liberal.  But it’s just unconvincing; they either ignore her intimacy with big money, or they attempt a misdirect by pointing out her reliable cultural liberalism, or they highlight her recent populist rhetoric itself, as if political rhetoric should be taken at face value.  Interestingly there’s a cadre of conservatives on this side of the argument as well, convinced that Hillary is quite left, actually more left than you might imagine: she’s an Alinskyite Stalin-waiting-in-the-wings.  Oh, dear!

Bill Clinton working for George McGovern, 1972
In reality, Bill and Hillary started out as idealistic McGovern supporters, but somewhere between there and here they became a little too eager to work within the system, a little too comfortable playing nice with the powers-that-be.  Hillary has supported Obamacare, the extension of unemployment benefits, etc., so she clearly is some kind of liberal; that is, she’s willing to use government to help working people.  So why all of a sudden does she feel the need to sound like Huey Long?

And there it is.  That’s the way liberals have changed since 2008: they’ve become substantially more economically populist.  The wars over Obamacare, the federal budget, financial regulation, etc. have focused the liberal mind on the issue of economic injustice.  The Tea Party and libertarians have made free market anarchism the centerpiece of conservatism, and in doing so they’ve clarified liberal convictions.  The 2008 election was about unseating the party of George W. Bush and undoing the tremendous damage it had caused, and Hillary seemed a perfectly plausible leader for that charge.   But now liberals are hungry to fight the real fight, the fight to make our economy work for everyone, not just CEO’s and investors and hedge-fund managers.  And Hillary is simply implausible as the champion of that fight.

The Clintons came of political age in the 1980’s, when the country was turning toward Reaganism, toward free-market idolatry and Social Darwinism.  Like many liberals of their day, they made their accommodation with the new reality.   They abandoned the fight for economic justice, and fought a rearguard action against the laissez-faire assault on the welfare state.  This is the real way that Hillary is too old: she’s still part of that liberal timidity.  But liberals today are no longer afraid to be liberals, they want a leader that represents their new fighting spirit, and Hillary sold off that piece of her soul to the highest bidder long, long ago.  In a strange way, the McCarthyite freaks afraid of Hillary’s inner Stalin are half right.  She did submerge her true liberal self long ago; they’re just wrong to think it’s still alive and kicking.

In an era when Republicans have a lock on Congress (or at least on the House) even a thoroughly liberal president wouldn’t be able to advance much of a liberal agenda.  And a moderate president doing little to help or harm America would be enormously preferable to a conservative doing it much harm.  It’s true that a genuine liberal could substantially advance the interests of working people through appointments of cabinet secretaries, agency heads, federal judges, etc., but there are no genuine liberals running this cycle that actually have a chance of winning.  So all that’s left for liberals is to pressure Hillary to be as liberal as she can be pressured to be, and that includes doing pathetic little things like withholding endorsements.  And this is the likely scenario for the next 8 years: an uninspiring and cynical president half-heartedly containing raging conservative havoc.  It seems we just have to accept that that’s the best we can do.


  1. Tom, good post, rings "truthy". One thing, though, how big is this group of liberals that have changed? Are there really enough of them to drive the narrative you've painted? Or, has much of the Left just checked out? Lastly, do you not think Jeb would be much like George I (as opposed to George II)? And, therefore, would probably also reign in conservative havoc (mostly kind of).

    1. I'm convinced liberal confidence and hope is substantially higher now than it was in 2008. Which is ironic, since there was hope for real positive change then and -- with the Republican lock on Congress -- there's none now.

      I think Jeb would be more like W than George H W. He sounds quite conservative (other than on immigration and Common Core), he's from a much more conservative generation, and his party has moved quite far to the right since 1989. He may not be quite the fool his brother was, but I have no trouble imagining Jeb signing, for instance. Paul Ryan's budget -- a budget which drastically lowers taxes on the upper end while slashing programs for the poor.