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Hillary's No Liberal | The Nation

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Hillary's No Liberal

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About the Author

Wendy Kaminer
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture.  ...

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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

"Run Hillary Run" buttons are in circulation among Democratic elites, the wealthy, well-meaning men and women who actually seem to enjoy writing four- or five-figure checks to the Democratic National Committee, repeatedly. Slaking the party's thirst for soft money, these serial donors remain inexplicably loyal to the Clinton Administration and unabashedly proud of their association with it.

Many of the donors Hillary Clinton has cultivated and captivated over the past eight years share Clinton's image of herself as another Eleanor Roosevelt, in modern professional form. They are not just willing but eager to finance her crusade for a Senate seat, anticipating a dramatic "win for women." That view of her as a liberal feminist prevails right and left, or rather right and center, rallying opponents as well as supporters.

Many are convinced that she is more liberal than Bill, although there is little evidence that they differ ideologically. It's fair to judge her by his Administration's dubious achievements; she chose not to run for office in her own right twenty years ago and instead sought power most traditionally, through her husband. If his power was hers, at least in part, then so is his record.

On the record Hillary looks less like a meaner, tougher Eleanor Roosevelt than a kinder, gentler Giuliani. Both Clinton and Giuliani support the death penalty, the 1996 welfare reform bill and the Administration's putatively tough and essentially racist initiatives on criminal justice--as well as gay rights, reproductive choice and the New York Yankees. Both have little regard for civil liberties, especially free speech. Unleashed, Giuliani might cut out the tongues of people who criticize him. Clinton, I suspect, would commit her critics to re-education camps. She has no apparent concern for freedom of speech on the Internet. The Clinton Administration has championed clearly unconstitutional restrictions on online speech, such as the now-defunct Communications Decency Act and its successor, the Child On Line Protection Act, currently being challenged in federal court.

It is easy to imagine Clinton embarking on an anti-vice crusade. She spouts the subtly repressive principles and platitudes of communitarianism, envisioning a majoritarian society in which collective concerns almost always prevail over individual rights. Remember the politics of meaning, her 1993 call for a collective spiritual renewal, her reminder that we are all "creatures of God"? Hillary has always been something of a virtuecrat, expressly focused on infusing society with the values and presumed virtues of religion. It's true that, unlike Giuliani, she has opposed school voucher programs that divert tax dollars to church schools. But I suspect that opposition reflects concern for the votes of public-school teachers more than a commitment to separating church and state. She has yet to speak out against faith-based social service programs, championed by Al Gore (as well as Republican Senator John Ashcroft), which, like vouchers, channel public money to sectarian institutions providing social services.

Clinton seems likely to sacrifice rights--like freedom from religion--to her notion of social goods. Both she and Giuliani exhibit the sanctimony of people who believe they know what's best for the rest of us--less liberty, more order and values imposed by the state or our neighbors.

Is it wishful thinking to suggest that this is not the face of feminism? After all, in the quest for civil rights, feminists have had to seek the intervention of the state, advocating essential legal restrictions on the economic freedoms of others, notably the freedom to discriminate. And, the campaign against sexual violence has made some feminists mistrust classic liberties, like privacy and free speech, while generating support for repressive criminal laws that deny rights to men accused of abusing women. But feminism has also been a movement for civil liberties that depended on First Amendment rights (as all dissident social movements do) and has sought individual autonomy for women.

When Hillary Clinton advocates policies insuring universal healthcare or expanded daycare and various civil rights laws, she does sound like a feminist (and a liberal), but apart from her qualified commitment to abortion rights (she has supported parental notification laws) or her rhetoric abroad, her feminism, like her liberalism, tends to take the form of statism. She is a statist first and a feminist only half-formed--sympathetic to women's demands for civil rights but often indifferent if not hostile to liberty. Clinton, for example, supports laws that restrict the freedom to divorce.

Maternalism wedded to political ambition can be ruthless. Consider Clinton's tacit support for the repressive juvenile justice bill proposed by the Senate in June. It was the vehicle for a few modest restrictions on gun and ammunition sales, passed with enthusiastic Administration support by Al Gore's dramatic tiebreaking vote. When Clinton joined her husband (and most Senate Democrats) in celebrating new initiatives to protect kids from guns, she was in effect urging passage of a law that encourages states to prosecute 14-year-olds as adults, loosens restrictions on housing juveniles with adult offenders, relieves states of the obligation to address racial disparities in juvenile justice systems, federalizes more juvenile crime and imposes harsh mandatory sentences on children. Rudy Giuliani himself couldn't have drafted a bill less protective of children.

Laws like this do not represent wins for women (NOW, to its credit, opposes the juvenile justice bill). Democrats who still harbor old-fashioned liberal feminist sympathies ought to acknowledge that they have found no champion in Hillary Clinton, although in the end, some may feel forced to vote for her. It's too bad they won't have had the chance to vote against her in a primary. In this era of nomination by anointment, politics matters much less than celebrity.

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