Hillary Rodham Clinton’s all-but-declared campaign to become the next senator from New York has elicited strong–and in some cases strongly opposed–reactions in the Nation community. This week we present two views (click here for the other one). –The Editors
Let’s get beyond the psychobabble that so often passes for informed political analysis these days and take Hillary Rodham Clinton at her word. Perhaps there is no agenda to her Senate candidacy deeper than the challenge she first set for herself and her generation thirty years ago in a Wellesley commencement address that made national headlines: To practice politics as the art of making possible what appears to be impossible.
From this point of view, Hillary Clinton can lay claim to the effective blend of idealism and tenacity that has characterized generations of progressive reformers in New York. And surely these ties should qualify her as a native as much as a lifetime of rooting for the Yankees.
Like Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she likes to identify, Hillary Clinton has spent the better part of her years as First Lady schlepping around the country and the globe, meeting as often with the powerless as with the powerful. There is nothing really new about her much-publicized listening tour of New York except the several hundred reporters who are now part of her entourage. She has visited more schools, daycare centers, hospitals, family planning clinics, model factories, housing projects, parks, micro-enterprises, agricultural cooperatives and the like than her staff can tally. She has boundless energy and enthusiasm for this sort of thing, born of her understanding that what works, and what’s therefore to be taken most seriously, is rarely the product of elegant social or economic planning but rather the less predictable outcome of the often messy process of democratic politics, where policy-makers are obligated to respond to myriad interests.
These encounters are reminiscent of those instigated by New York’s most fabled progressive reformers, many of them women, who placed great emphasis on the value of individual case management of social welfare by competent, caring professionals. They too traveled extensively, pioneering the kind of firsthand observation and methodical survey research in factories and tenements that we now take for granted as the basis of informed public policy and yet do not always manage to achieve. They built voluntary civic institutions like settlement houses that in turn modeled innovative ways to provide public healthcare, safe water, food and drugs, more accountable institutions of criminal justice, decent housing, parks and recreation, and wage and hour protections, all of which they saw as necessary conditions for nurturing responsible citizenship.
As the tale is often told, these worthy arrangements created widespread public demand for activism by the federal government and helped to spawn the modern social welfare state with its more secure, if still inadequate, sources of funding and more exacting professional standards for dealing with the poor. But lost in modern efforts to create formal distance between the state and its clients in order to protect their rights was the idea of providing assistance aimed at building personal capacity and self-reliance. This shortcoming fueled the disenchantment that resulted in the compromised welfare reforms of the Clinton era.