Who’s Ready for Hillary?

Who’s Ready for Hillary?

Depending on whom you ask, Clinton is a triangulating pro-corporate Democrat or a heroic shatterer of glass ceilings—or both.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 candidacy casts a bright light on every fissure within the modern Democratic Party. From domestic policy during the first Clinton presidency to foreign policy under Obama, from the Senate to the West Wing, Clinton has been involved with the most fraught political issues of the last two decades. Her team never ceases to remind the public of her experience, and trumpet the “inevitability” of her presidency. So why can’t we make up our minds about her? Here, seven Nation contributors give it their best shot.

Kathleen Geier

When I contemplate the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, my heart sinks. “Inevitable” though she may be, she’s the wrong woman for the job. Voters just handed the Democrats a resounding defeat at the polls in the 2014 midterm elections, and the reason is clear: it’s the economy, stupid. Voters told pollsters that the economy was their top concern: 70 percent believe the economy is in bad shape, and fully half say they “expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse.”

Their growing discontent is well-founded. Though the economy is improving, 72 percent of Americans believe we’re still in a recession. The bottom 90 percent actually experienced negative income growth during the recent “recovery”; all the gains went to the top 10 percent. The richest 0.1 percent controls a stunning 22 percent of our nation’s wealth. Such dizzying levels of inequality have not been seen in nearly a century.

Frustrated voters are demanding change, but nothing in Hillary Clinton’s history suggests that she is capable of delivering it. Clinton has far more in common with the Rahm Emanuel/Andrew Cuomo wing of the party than with Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. Not only is she Wall Street’s favorite Democrat, drawing hefty donations from the finance industry, but she has supported many of the destructive neoliberal economic policies that ushered in the crisis, such as financial deregulation and free trade. She spent years on the board of the most viciously anti-labor employer in the country, Walmart, and never once spoke up in favor of unions. She voted for the odious 2001 bankruptcy bill, which made it harder for Americans to shed impossible debt. She not only supported welfare “reform” but advocated tougher work requirements—a position that put her at odds with most Democrats.

And that’s just her domestic policy. Clinton’s neocon-friendly foreign-policy record is even worse—not only her vote in favor of the Iraq War, but her advocacy of drone strikes and her saber rattling over Syria. There are also serious concerns about her executive competence: her leadership in the 1993 healthcare-reform effort and her own 2008 presidential campaign does not exactly inspire confidence.

There is one genuinely fresh and exciting thing about Clinton as a presidential candidate, of course, and that would be her gender. Even a Hillary skeptic like me has to admit that the prospect of the first woman president is pretty freaking awesome. But while President Hillary Clinton would be an important symbolic breakthrough, there is little evidence that she is enthusiastic about enacting the feminist economic policies that women need to jump-start our stalled gender revolution—Clinton doesn’t even support national paid family leave!

Many on the left are too preoccupied with presidential politics; a more productive channel for activist energies would be organizing on the state and local levels. But while grassroots organizing is the key to a stronger left, presidential politics are still extraordinarily important. From Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama, Democratic presidents have too often been complicit in the neoliberal policies that have devastated so many working Americans. It is the job of those of us on the left to point this out, and to put forward an alternative political vision and accompanying strategy. This is no time for the politics of complacency that Hillary Clinton represents. To the extent that the left falls in line for Hillary, we enable neoliberalism. Meanwhile, the dream of a social-democratic America is borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Kathleen Geier, a writer and policy researcher based in Chicago, is the host of “The Curve,” a feminist economics round table at TheNation.com.

Joan Walsh

If Hillary Clinton runs and wins, she will be a good enough president. Not progressive enough for me, by any means, but as progressive as anyone currently electable. I expect to vote for her—if not in the Democratic primary, then later, in November 2016. That’s it. That’s my endorsement.

With some weariness, I have agreed to write another piece defending Clinton from the charge that she’s a neocon in a pantsuit who shares the blame for all of her husband’s triangulating compromises in bringing centrist, pro-business policies from the Democratic Leadership Council to the White House. My willingness to accept Clinton as a Democratic presidential nominee doesn’t stem from any great passion for Hillary herself—though I respect her—but from my aversion to the impotent game of “Let’s find an insurgent candidate who will topple a centrist front-runner!” played by the left every four to eight years. It’s a colossal waste of political time and energy.

Now, you might say this game worked in 2008. The man embraced by progressives, Barack Obama, who seemed to have little chance either of toppling Clinton or of being elected president at the campaign’s start, did both. That wasn’t a victory for progressive politics, however, but for progressives’ wishful thinking. Obama was never to the left of Clinton, as their subsequent partnership proved. That he put her in charge of diplomacy only further undermined the notion that their foreign-policy views were very far apart.

The most important thing that the left can do to elect a more progressive president would be to give her (or him) a more progressive Congress. But fantasizing over primary challenges is a lot easier, and apparently a lot more fun.

All of that said, if Clinton gets a genuine primary challenger from her left, so be it. Senator Bernie Sanders could run an inspiring campaign, and I might even vote for him. I’m more skeptical of the efforts to draft Senator Elizabeth Warren, who I think could play a huge role in the Senate, but would only break progressive hearts—witness the disappointment over her support for Israel and new military moves in Iraq—and waste her time with a presidential campaign. (I’m distinguishing here between a genuine, sincere challenge from Warren and a desperate “anybody but Hillary” draft-Warren campaign from the left.) And don’t even try peddling Jim Webb as a progressive alternative.

Finally, I recoil at the Hillary hate because it seems so gendered. I don’t mean to accuse my Clinton-critical colleagues of sexism, exactly. It’s just that, in my own experience, it’s never enough for critics of a female leader to say that she isn’t qualified, or that she’s the wrong choice, or that she’s made this or that mistake. A woman has to be described as the absolute worst, and she has to be destroyed.

Whether from the left or the right—and there’s remarkable overlap in the story lines offered by Clinton-haters across the political spectrum—headlines that blare Stop Hillary! always make me think they’re talking about Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. They depict Clinton as not merely a bad choice, but a dangerous one. There are valid policy reasons to oppose a Clinton candidacy. It’s too bad so much of the rhetoric and imagery used against her traffics in an unconscious discomfort with the power of women.

Joan Walsh, editor-at-large for Salon and a political analyst at MSNBC, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.

Jamelle Bouie

We shouldn’t understate the unique position of Hillary Clinton in the world of modern American politics. A former first lady turned US senator (a first in American history) and then secretary of state, she came close to making history—again—as the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for the presidency. When President Obama finishes his term in two years, she will stand as his most obvious successor and as a strong candidate for president: even now, in an era of hyper-polarization, she retains more public support than Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie or Joe Biden.

This is all to say that if Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, we shouldn’t call it a “coronation.” The 2000 Republican primary was a coronation, when party leaders all but cleared the field for George W. Bush, the undistinguished governor of Texas whose chief advantage was his deep roots in party politics by way of his father. By contrast, if it’s Hillary Clinton in two years, it will come eight years after a hard-fought campaign against one of the most electrifying Democratic candidates in recent memory—in which Clinton nevertheless won nearly half the votes—and four years of loyal service in his administration. Put another way, if Clinton has the support of a large cross section of Democratic voters, including single women, educated urbanites, Latinos and—most important for a primary—black Americans, it’s because she’s earned it.

The problem with Clinton has nothing to do with process and everything to do with substance. As others in this forum have noted, Hillary Clinton is a triangulating corporate Democrat who forged her political identity against a relentless, ideologically driven GOP and built her core support among the wealthy elites of the Democratic Party. The former makes her suspicious of (if not hostile to) the left on foreign and domestic policy, while the latter—coupled with her time as New York senator—makes her receptive to the failed ideas and expertise of Wall Street.

Now, in the absence of a strong left-wing base that can determine elections on the local and state levels—and thus the long-term direction of the Democratic Party as a whole—some of this is baked in the cake. Any Democratic presidential nominee, including an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, would have to trade influence with the corporate wing of the party; that’s what leading a party means. But it also means responding to the present anxieties of American voters. At her best, that’s what Warren does: articulate the frustrations of everyday people at this moment and offer plausible solutions to their problems.

The question for Clinton, should she stand as the Democrats’ leader in 2016, is whether she is too stuck in the politics of the past to do this. If she is willing to chart a new course, she has the political strength to offer voters the clear solutions they crave to wage stagnation and economic malaise.

If Clinton sticks to the small-ball approach that defined her husband’s time in office, however, then we should remember this: presidential nominees reflect their party as much as they lead them, and a Hillary Clinton who doesn’t see space for a more muscular liberalism is reflecting a Democratic Party with the same blind spot. The task for liberals—and the left more broadly—is to correct that blind spot in the party and, in the process, force Clinton to see that the 1990s are over, and the public is more than primed for a big swing.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at Slate covering policy, politics and race.

Doug Henwood

Oh, no—not another Clinton. please.

Is there anything that symbolizes the exhaustion of American life like the view that Hillary Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee for president in 2016? Or, worse yet, the possibility that she could be running against yet another Bush? It’s like our entire culture is operating under some compulsion to repeat. In psychiatry, that’s considered a mental disorder. It should be in politics as well.

The positive case for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is remarkably thin. She’s a woman, yes, but so was Margaret Thatcher. She’s experienced in some sense, but it would be hard to make a list of her accomplishments. As first lady, she ran healthcare reform, which turned out to be a disaster. After that, she retreated to symbolic politics for the rest of her husband’s term, allegedly promoting the interests of women and children despite supporting Bill’s ending of welfare as we knew it: an act that did more damage to women and children than all the photo ops in the world can undo. In the Senate—where she made a beeline for the Armed Services Committee, only stopping to attend Republican prayer breakfasts—she concentrated her legislative attentions on things like naming post offices in New York after local worthies. Her major accomplishment as secretary of state was traveling almost a million miles. She contributed hawkish advice at cabinet meetings but not much else, since Obama runs foreign policy within his own tight inner circle, delegating little to the diplomatic corps. And her preference for secrecy, first demonstrated in her handling of healthcare reform in the 1990s, is the last thing we need after more than a decade of intensified government lying and spying.

Hillary (and she has clearly rebranded herself as just a first name) embodies the “New Democrat” politics of the 1990s that now seem hopelessly obsolete, no match for a world of chronic economic stagnation, polarization and climate catastrophe. She was very much a partner in inventing that ideology—business-friendly, hawkish, tough on unions and the poor—with her husband. The Clintonites purged the Democrats of their social-democratic wing, consolidating the victories of the Reagan Revolution. At this point, it’s hard to say what Hillary or the Democrats stand for, other than being protectors of the status quo. But even that isn’t so clear, given that some neocons—worried by the possible ascendancy of Rand Paul–style neo-isolationism in the GOP—have been making very pro-Clinton sounds over the past few months. She does, after all, love a good military intervention.

As I said at the top, though, Clinton’s alleged inevitability is about much more than her own story: it’s about American society’s loss of dynamism in general and the decline of the left as well. We’ve been so poisoned by decades of neoliberalism and military adventurism that we seem to have lost the capacity to imagine a more peaceful and egalitarian world. Changing that is a longer-term project than a single presidential election cycle, but we’ve got to get working on it. Next to that, Hillary Clinton is a distraction.

Doug Henwood, the editor of Left Business Observer and a contributing editor to The Nation, is working on a study of the current American ruling class.

Heather Digby Parton

Even though lively primary campaigns often feel like bloody civil wars, they are among the few times that voters get a chance to express their wishes to party elites. Unfortunately, it looks as if that memorably tumultuous primary campaign of 2008 between Senators Clinton and Obama also determined the Democratic nominee through 2016, possibly 2020. This is regrettable. The voters deserve to have big national issues fully aired and argued before the campaign degenerates into the sickening partisan slime fest it’s destined to be.

Many on the left end of the party would be happy to see Senator Bernie Sanders join the fray, and they’d be positively giddy if Senator Elizabeth Warren decided to give Clinton a run for her money. The more the merrier, in my book.

With or without an energetic challenge, many liberals doubt that Hillary Clinton will be able to reassemble the Obama coalition if she is nominated, and they worry that she won’t turn out Democratic voters. I have to disagree: Clinton victories in deep-red states like Arkansas or Georgia may be a pipe dream, but there’s little reason to doubt that she will be able to kindle excitement among the Democratic faithful. Lest we forget, she would be the first woman nominated for president by a major political party in the United States. Half the population has never seen a president who looks like them—half.

On the night Clinton spoke to the Democratic convention in 2008, exhorting her followers to get behind Barack Obama, I found myself watching with a group of young African-American women who were strong Obama supporters. They were not exactly Hillary fans in that moment, but I felt a shift in the room’s mood as she started to speak eloquently and passionately about the long struggle for women’s rights. When she said, “My mother was born before women could vote—but in this election, my daughter got to vote for her mother for president,” those young Obama-supporting women next to me all spontaneously stood and cheered, one of them exclaiming, “There’s the Hillary I know! There she is!” I was reminded that both Clintons were always more popular among the rank and file than they were among the liberal cognoscenti.

Democratic women will be excited to vote for Clinton in 2016, and I think the rest of the Obama coalition will be as well. All other considerations aside, the first woman president is a big deal. I plan to criticize her without restraint when she takes positions with which I disagree. I fully expect to be frustrated and often angry—as I have been with every president in my lifetime—and I’ll call it like I see it. But if she wins, I will also allow myself at least a few moments to feel the pleasure and pride of finally seeing a woman elected to the top job. It’s been a long time coming.

Heather Digby Parton has been observing politics and culture at her blog Hullabaloo since 2003 and writes regularly at Salon.

Steven Teles

The beginning of wisdom in thinking about the 2016 presidential race is that no serious candidate for the nomination will diverge from the personnel and positions of the generic Democrat. The pool of potential judges and executive-branch nominees that any Democratic president will choose from is roughly similar. On most of the issues, almost all plausible Democrats running in 2016 will be positioned where the major interest groups that make up the party base, and its sources of funding, want them to be. Hillary Clinton may have her vices and virtues, but political polarization means that she’s unlikely to be that different in office than her challengers.

Clinton is certainly the most widely recognized potential candidate for president in 2016. And she has her virtues, in particular a great breadth of experience, both in domestic and foreign policy. I do not trust all of her instincts where national security is concerned, but she won’t have to be trained for the job. Having spent her time in the Senate doing constituent service for Wall Street, Clinton is far too close to the bloated financial sector than I am comfortable with. As an advocate of school choice, I’m distressed that she has voiced much more hostility to charter schools than Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, both of whom were strong supporters. A fixture in Washington, DC, since the early 1990s, Hillary Clinton is unlikely to expect more from the politics of the nation’s capitol than it can deliver. And while it may seem like grudge-bearing, I still cannot quite forgive her role in the effort to pass universal health care during her husband’s administration, which was one of the most astounding organizational screw-ups in recent times.

These are important distinguishing features of Clinton, but she is, in fact, the most generic of Democrats. I wish that the Democrats had a candidate who was willing to make a central issue of attacking regulation where it serves the interests of the wealthy—in finance, medicine, urban development and occupational licensing. I wish we had a candidate who would run on fundamentally rethinking our system of criminal justice, making the changes necessary to dramatically reduce our incredible rate of incarceration. I wish there was a Democrat who would attack what I have called “klugeocracy”—unnecessarily complicated policy—by, for example, eliminating all tax-advantaged savings and increasing Social Security. And I wish there was a Democrat willing to fundamentally unshackle American education from the archaic boundaries of local control and unjust local finance, putting in place instead a system of progressive, national vouchers. But we do not have such a candidate, because that is not where the party, as represented by its donors, activists and major interest groups is.

So we will probably be stuck with Hillary. If so, well, we could do worse. But we should not fool ourselves, when speaking to each other, that we are doing anything other than settling because of the absence of plausible alternatives. I wish that Jim Webb, for instance, did not have a biography that disqualifies him from getting the support of the party’s feminists, or have too much published that suggests more sympathy than I can stomach for the Confederacy. He could run in parts of the country where few other Democrats can, could plausibly run against plutocracy, mass incarceration, and an excessively adventuresome foreign policy—a very attractive issue mix not likely to be embraced by Hillary Clinton. But his biography makes him a protest candidate—albeit a protest worth supporting.

I will dutifully support Clinton or whichever other Democrat the party in its infinite wisdom nominates in 2016. To do otherwise, especially with the possibility of a unified Republican government in prospect, would be absolute lunacy. But I fear that the Democrats are ill-served by the mix of positions the party will straight-jacked a nominee into, which are unlikely to slow the growth of plutocracy at the top, the stagnation of social mobility further down, and the decline in the nimbleness of government. We must focus on changing that straight-jacket, rather than imagining that it matters a great deal whether Hillary Clinton or someone else wears it.

Steven Teles is associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, and the author of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement (Princeton, 2008) and co-editor of Conservatism and American Political Development (Oxford, 2009).

Rich Yeselson

How you feel about Hillary Clinton’s inevitability depends a lot upon how alarmed you are that the GOP—the most radically extreme major party formation since the Southern “Slave Democrats” of the 1850s—might take full control of the federal government in 2016. (Evaluating her candidacy shouldn’t, by the way, have much to do with imagining that Clinton will be a great candidate who will “expand the electoral map.” Anybody who thinks that she is going to carry Arkansas or Missouri or Arizona is a fool or else, her flack.) In most respects, except the salient one of gender, Clinton is exactly the kind of candidate one would expect the Democrats to nominate in 2016. She has the typical political credentials of a modern presidential candidate: eight years in the Senate, followed by a high cabinet post. She has 100 percent name recognition. She has a powerful fundraising apparatus. And her policy positions are broadly aligned with the vast majority of Democratic Party elites and much of its electorate, too. In this, she is the embodiment of what, in a useful phrase, The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber has described as “boardroom liberalism.”

The phrase connotes, as Scheiber says, both ideology and political method. The ideology contains the basic litany of Democratic economic and social policy—the lineaments of the mixed economy—with a deep commitment to racial and gender diversity. It barely addresses wage stagnation and its concern about the gigantic role of finance capital in the economy is, to be kind, tentative. The method is to get meritocratic elites—government, academic, and business—in a room to hash out the policy. Social-justice movements (and leftist intellectuals, too) are viewed not as the foundation that drives the party’s mission, but as nagging impediments to technocratic efficiency.

Clinton is a quintessential boardroom liberal. And yet her policy proposals—and much more importantly, her executive and judicial appointments—will be infinitely superior to those of whatever candidate represents the revanchist, ethno-nationalist GOP. This matters: the US governing system grants enormous authority to federal judicial review and the Federal Reserve. If the Supreme Court and the Fed frighten or disappoint you now, imagine what they will look like under the aegis of President Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz or Scott Walker.

I’m a social democrat and feminist, so Clinton doesn’t look that good to me compared to an imaginary candidate to her left on many economic issues—say, Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown. But not only is she a far superior choice to any Republican, it is also clear that, under the current conditions of asymmetrical partisan and ideological polarization, it’s impossible for our presidential system of separation of powers to function, i.e., engender bi-partisan legislative policy.

So I’d argue that in this election of 2016, party trumps differences between given intra-Democratic candidates by a wide margin. Any generic Democrat is far superior to any generic Republican. Any Democrat, including Clinton, will sustain the Affordable Care Act and climate-change remedies; no Republican will. Obama initially encouraged a post-partisan fantasy of party cooperation that American political culture can no longer afford to entertain.

In summary, the state of the Democratic Party is that it is porous, somewhat center-left, but ideologically constrained by its fealty to its Wall Street donor class. The state of American democracy is that it is catastrophically hamstrung by an anachronistic governing outline composed in the late eighteenth century that did not anticipate that political parties would exist, let alone become highly adversarial. And the state of the left is that it has a very strong intellectual/academic/media infrastructure, but it needs many more rank-and-file adherents and a movement culture if it is to accomplish what the right of Barry Goldwater/William F. Buckley/Strom Thurmond/Newt Gingrich managed—the seizing of a major party. For now, Clinton is more likely than anybody else to be elected the next Democratic president. If this happens, it will be at once historic and banal.

Rich Yeselson is a writer in Washington, DC.

More on Hillary Clinton in this issue…

The Editors: “Wanted: A Challenge to Clinton

The Editors: “How Many Ways Can Goldman Give?

Michelle Goldberg: “David Brock’s Long Strange Trip

Anatol Lieven: “A Hawk Named Hillary

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