The 2016 campaign is here. So let the tough questions begin
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In November’sHarper’smagazine, Doug Henwood, a longtime progressive economics writer, editor and publisher, takes a deep dive into Hill-and-Bill land and resoundingly bursts the bubble that’s now taking shape across America’s Democratic provinces.
His article, “Stop Hillary: Vote no to a Clinton Dynasty,” turns the notion that Hillary and the White House are an inevitable match made in heaven into a restive rejoinder filled with deflating details from the Clintons’ long careers in high offices.
“What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us,” Henwood writes, saying the country would be far better served by anyone but Hillary the hawk, Hillary the centrist, Hillary the corporatist, and Hillary the appendage of Bill. “Today we desperately need a new political economy—one that features a more equal distribution of income, investment in our rotting social and physical infrastructure, and a more humane ethic. We also need a judicious foreign policy, and a commander-in-chief who will resist the instant gratification of air strikes and rhetorical bluster.”
“Is Hillary Clinton the answer to these prayers?” Henwood asks, then answering, “It’s hard to think so, despite the widespread liberal fantasy of her as a progressive paragon, who will follow through exactly as Barack Obama did not. In fact, a close look at her life and career is perhaps the best antidote to all these great expectations.”
Harper’s and Henwood, to their credit, are trying to jump ahead of the curve and answer the most obvious question looming in American politics. That question is not, as posters from her rallies pose, “Are we ready for Hillary?” According to Henwood, it’s more like, “Really, Hillary? Really?” as he offer readers an answer filled with details we thought we had forgotten.
I covered the 2008 presidential campaign and saw Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, John McCain and Sarah Palin give many speeches in many red and blue states. Having been there, I don’t buy into a lot of Henwood’s characterizations, such as why people voted for Obama versus Hillary, or that the “quasi-official” case for Hillary in 2016 boils down to: “She has experience. She’s a woman, and it’s her turn.”
After years of the heavy-handed, “we won, we rule” presidency of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, a lot of reporters, myself included, agreed that Hillary gave far better speeches and knew the wheels of government more than her competition, including Obama. But Americans were weary of war and didn’t want a female Dick Cheney, which essentially was the management style she telegraphed. Obama’s moderation was untested, but welcome, after years of Bush-Cheney immoderation.
What Henwood doesn’t broach is whether her centrist version of “we win, we rule” might be the temperament that voters, including Democrats, will want in 2016. Instead, he turns to Clinton’s past to suggest what her presidency would be like.
For starts, her cardinal sin is essentially an old one and unforgiveable in leftist circles: she abandoned her more idealistic and progressive instincts in favor of mainstream centrism. It’s not just that she turned her back on the spirit of Bob Dylan, D.H Lawrence, Picasso, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other early inspirations, writes Henwood. More telling was that she wrote her Wellesley College thesis on activist Saul Alinsky, then refused a job offer to work with him, and within a decade of graduating from Yale Law School was practicing corporate law in Little Rock, including going after Alinsky-style organizers from ACORN (while Governor Bill targeted teacher’s unions).
We’re told that part of her move to Little Rock was she failed the Washington, D.C. bar exam. Ouch! Are we really ready for more details like that? We are reminded of ancient history like the Clintons’ bad real estate investment in the Ozarks, a project known as Whitewater. As the project’s principals saw their house of cards collapse, Hillary found herself mired in an insanely messy conflict-of-interest swamp. Bill was governor. The lead investor put all of the money into a bank that was regulated by the state and soon failed. Hillary, the governor’s wife, was at a Little Rock law firm hired to protect the principals from prosecution and even billed 60 hours for her work with the client. “Yet Whitewater itself is of far less interest than how Hillary handled it: with lies, half-truths, and secrecy,” Henwood writes, claiming she brought those qualities to the White House, which combined with arrogance, led to the collapse of healthcare reform.
There’s a decisively deja-vu, or perhaps deja-voodoo, quality to this and other yesteryear recounting. We’re told how Hillary worked on women’s and children’s issues. “It was all very high-minded, and good for her image, but of limited impact,” Henwood says, which seems a bit harsh. But he points to her support of Bill’s vindictive 1996 welfare reform, which forced many single mothers into the workforce and led an early mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, “the first black women admitted to the Mississippi bar,” to declare that President Clinton’s “signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.”
Henwood’s profile of post-Clinton presidency Hillary has the quality of a mystery that’s missing key clues. Maybe after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Bill’s impeachment, she really learned to bury her feelings. Henwood judges but doesn’t say. She “plainly was a carpetbagger” who went to New York, and particularly its upstate counties, where she conducted a “listening tour,” but her mission was “flattering voters” so she could get elected as a U.S. senator. Once in the Senate, she “buddied up” to some of the worst right-wingers, attending prayer breakfasts with Kansas’ Sam Brownback. “Even Newt Gingrich has good things to say about her,” he writes. “Oh, and she voted for the Iraq war, and continued to defend it long after others threw in the towel.”
Henwood says Hillary’s biggest achievement in the Senate was to “make friends with her Republican colleagues.” As Obama’s Secretary of State, “she backed an escalation of the Afghanistan war, lobbied on behalf of a continuing military presence in Iraq, urged Obama to bomb Syria, and supported the intervention in Libya,” he noted, adding that she really had little to show for the “956,733 miles” she logged as she met “foreign leaders in 112 countries.”
It’s not news to note that Hillary has been a hawk for a long time. People might remember her 2008 presidential television ad featuring a red phone ringing at 3am. The serious-sounding narrator suggested that only Hillary was prepared to answer it. I saw her unveil that ad in a gym near Waco, Texas where she stood in front of a dozen retired generals, including Wesley Clark. But given the foreign policy explosions that have happened since she left the Obama administration, an alternative interpretation of her tenure could be that she helped keep a lid on the crazies.
It is very troubling to Henwood that “prominent neocons such as Robert Kagan and Max Boot have made supportive noises about Hillary—and with an isolationist wing rising within the Republican Party, advocates of a countervailing ‘muscular’ foreign policy might do considerably more as 2016 approaches.” It is hard to say what would be the more worrisome choice in the face of real evil overseas: right-wingers getting behind Rand Paul’s isolationism, or endorsing Hillary and her itchy trigger finger?
What’s missing from the pages of Harper’s is what the public most wants to know: what has Hillary learned over the years? How has it shaped her character? Has it made her wiser in the ways of the world? Or is the pre-2016 Hillary a figure who thrives inside a well-protected bubble, who goes through too many stage-managed motions, and is little more than a screen into which people project their hopes?
“When I spoke to Dick Morris, I asked him how Hillary would differentiate herself from Obama during the 2016 campaign,” Henwood writes, referring to the political consultant who worked with the Clintons in the early Arkansas days, followed them to the White House, and has since become a right-wing scold. “His prediction: she would say that her predecessor had outlined a beautiful vision, but now voters need ‘someone who can get things done.'” In other word, a Democratic Cheney.
But that’s a discouraging answer if there ever was one. It sounds more like something from the 2008 campaign trail, and not the unruly world that is hurtling toward 2016. Henwood concludes, with no need for a spoiler alert, “Eight years of Hill? Four, even? To borrow her anti-McCain jab from the 2008 Democratic convention: No way, no how!”
It’s laudable that Harper’s and Henwood were first out of the progressive block to start asking hard questions about Hillary and the future. But answers to the most meaningful questions have yet to be found.