Friday, March 28, 2008

Hillary Clinton and the Issues

In the current heated political climate, most of the discussion about the Clinton and Obama campaigns has focused on tactics, strategy, and the potential harm to the Democratic Party of a continuation of Clinton's "kitchen sink" approach (or, as one pundit has described it, the "Tonya Harding Strategy"). As much fun as it is to talk about such issues, I've been thinking lately about the candidates' policy positions. I guess someone ought to.

Throughout the campaign, I've been genuinely confused by the accepted wisdom that both Clinton and Obama ought to be equally acceptable to a liberal/progressive like me. Before the gloves came off, people were talking about a Dream Ticket of Clinton and Obama, or Obama and Clinton. All I could think was, "Are they kidding? Why would I want Clinton to be president or vice president? Obama wasn't my first choice, but he's at least arguably motivated by the things that concern me. But Clinton?!" I have been trying for months to figure out where the disconnect comes from, that is, why I view Clinton as anathema while some other liberals and progressives have embraced her or at least view her as a fine second choice.

Last Sunday, the NYT Magazine ran a short article by Matt Bai. In the article, Bai suggested in passing that Clinton's primary wins in bigger states like Ohio might be explained by the trauma of the economic downturn, which might make voters in those states "responsive to Clinton's more pragmatic message." My immediate thought was, "What 'more pragmatic message'? For that matter, what message?" Upon reflection, I realized that I while I have been following Clinton's policy proposals, I don't really think of Clinton as having any message at all, much less one that can be described as pragmatic or idealistic, liberal or conservative, vague or specific. Why have I not formed such judgments about her policy proposals?

The answer, it turns out, is quite simple: I do not believe anything that Hillary Clinton says. I do not take her specific policy proposals seriously, because I have no reason to believe that she would even try to deliver on anything that she says to appeal to voters like me. How can I be so sure? This is not merely a matter of believing that all politicians over-promise and fail to deliver. Even though campaign promises are often broken or forgotten (or simply cannot be kept for reasons beyond the control of the promisor), that is not the issue here. Clinton is different in a fundamental way. I have come to believe that Clinton, unlike any other politician I can think of (with the clear exceptions of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney), has no fundamental beliefs other than that she should be President.

As I have noted previously on Dorf on Law, Hillary Clinton has continued her husband's habit of capitulating to conservatives. While this is sometimes called triangulation, it is perhaps more accurate simply to call it unilateral disarmament. It is not that the Clintons shrink from a fight. It's just that they are generally much more willing to fight against liberals than conservatives. NAFTA, the death penalty (AEDPA), and many other issues in Bill Clinton's administration brought forth fierce fights between Clinton and liberals. Hillary Clinton's health care fiasco started by ruling out any progressive option and ended with a proposal to create a bureaucratic nightmare designed to please entrenched health care interests. She responded to the 2004 election by, as I noted in my earlier post, selling out a pro-choice Democrat to get an anti-choice Democrat elected to the Senate. Her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was a huge disappointment and a huge mistake. Most egregiously, her willingness to declare that John McCain is clearly qualified to be commander-in-chief while Obama is not indicates that she is willing to take the conservatives' side when it suits her immediate needs. (The rather curious idea that she is more qualified to be commander-in-chief than Obama is another issue entirely.)

In short, Hillary Clinton's actions to date tell me that I can't trust her. This is ultimately why I think that liberals like Paul Krugman have it wrong. Krugman argues in his NYT op-ed today that "it's important to take a hard look at what the candidates say about policy," which is certainly a reasonable suggestion. He then concludes that Hillary Clinton's policy proposals on dealing with the mortgage crisis and on health care "suggest[] a strong progressive sensibility." Upon reflection, I can see his point. Even though I have moved into Obama's camp, I've been disappointed by his excessively cautious approach to various economic issues. (I've also been very disappointed that both he and Clinton continue to buy into the notion that Social Security faces a "crisis," but that's a subject for another day.)

If Krugman is right that Clinton's policy proposals are slightly more to my liking than Obama's, why do I support Obama? For that matter, why do I not only support Obama but also find Clinton so unacceptable as the possible Democratic presidential nominee? Krugman provides the clue: "Do these comparisons [of the candidates' policy proposals] really tell us what each candidate would be like as president? Not necessarily -- but they're the best guide we have." Krugman is wrong. We have more than Clinton's policy proposals to guide us. We have her pattern of behavior. Actions speak louder than words, and I have learned not to believe Hillary Clinton's words.

Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

20 comments:

Garth Sullivan said...

it is difficult to make predictions as to how a president will act in office, but, i think you may be too pessimistic in your assessment.

perhaps, i am a naive on this, but, i think hillary is smart enough and ambitious enough to realize that, once president, she will have a historic opportunity to shape the direction of this country.

as a repudiationist president, as she will undoubtedly be characterized by her domestic policy, SC picks, and, hopefully, follow through on her promise to begin a measured withdrawl from iraq.

in many ways, it will be easier for a hillary presidency to make radical changes, than it was for her husband.

make no mistake, i think Hillary desperately wants to be president and she is currently placing her desire to be president over the interests of the party.

but, i think you have to believe her, especially when she presents detailed policy saying what she will do.

with a democratic congress, the people will expect her to come through.

it's been forgotten, but many senators have noted that the hillary they met in person was someone they could work with and far from the polarizing figure they expected.

expect more LBJ than JFK, but i think she would have delivered, now, i think she should get out.

Sobek said...

"Actions speak louder than words, and I have learned not to believe Hillary Clinton's words."

A conservative blogger I read has been mocking the fact that for some inexaplicable reason, liberals are just now beginning to realize the Clintons tend to lie. A lot. Even where their lies are easily falsified.

But how much can you trust Obama? In a January 17, 2007 interview, Obama said Jerry Wright "helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated." Same interview says "the senator does check with his pastor before making any bold political moves."

Now Wright is politically (and well-deservedly) toxic, Obama goes on The View and says "I think people overstate this idea of mentor or spiritual adviser. He was my pastor."

Three months from now, he'll be answering interview questions with "Jeremiah who?"

In today's Weekly Standard, there is an amusing round-up of Obama declaring that all the issues that hurt him are really just "distractions" from the issues that benefit him. The Wright fiasco is a distraction. Gay marriage is a distraction. Abortion is a distraction. Race is a distraction. Illegal immigration is a distraction.

Obama might do well to figure out that a lot of people think those are core issues of the utmost importance, rather than insignificant annoyances just because he can't solve them with vague platitudes.

How much can you trust a guy who is more interested in telling people what they shouldn't be thinking about, than in addressing issues that motivate huge portions of the American population?

Garth Sullivan said: "i think hillary is smart enough and ambitious enough to realize that, once president, she will have a historic opportunity to shape the direction of this country."

How is that not true of any President, and of Bill Clinton in particular?

Carl said...

garth sullivan said:

it's been forgotten, but many senators have noted that the hillary they met in person was someone they could work with and far from the polarizing figure they expected.

Buchanan apparently believes that any attempt on the part of a candidate to compromise with people he doesn't like amounts to "unilateral disarmament." Something tells me he's not going to be particularly receptive to your point.

egarber said...

Now Wright is politically (and well-deservedly) toxic, Obama goes on The View and says "I think people overstate this idea of mentor or spiritual adviser. He was my pastor.

Three months from now, he'll be answering interview questions with "Jeremiah who?"


If you examine the larger context of those comments on The View, it's pretty clear that Obama wasn't running from his pastor (as you imply). He was basically confronting the manufactured image -- via the endless loops of Wright statements -- of Obama living and breathing by everything his pastor said.

In fact, his very next comment was an anecdote about how Wright told a black woman who was having doubts about marrying a white guy that she shouldn't let skin color get in the way of true love. And they got married in the end (I think). So Obama didn't run from the notion that he relied on Wright for guidance (especially on religious matters); he instead tried to show people that there were very good reasons to rely on him -- and that Obama chose to see the good.

In today's Weekly Standard, there is an amusing round-up of Obama declaring that all the issues that hurt him are really just "distractions" from the issues that benefit him. The Wright fiasco is a distraction.

In his very next comment on the view (after the above stuff), he basically said that the scrutiny being applied to him was fair, because there's a high threshold test (as there should be) for somebody running to be president. In other words, he's not hiding behind the distraction argument in his substantive responses. On the contrary, he has addressed this issue head on, and he understands why it had to be answered.

Barry said...

Like Neil, Obama wasn't my first choice either, but now I am in his camp. I generally agree with Neil's posting, but I think the mistrust goes deeper. Clinton's play book seems very similar to the Bush (both of them) playbooks of the past. For example, the 3 AM wake up fear mongering call reminds me of Willie Horton in some ways and of Swift boating in other ways. Of course, both Pres. Bushes ended up campaigning on one thing (41: Read my lips; no new taxes; 43: reaching across the aisle, I'm a uniter not a divider) and governing oppositely. It may be unfair to compare Clinton to the Bushes, but it certainly does cause a voter to take pause.

egarber said...

Speaking of actions running contrary to words, let me broaden this just a tad – since Neil is a tax / economics lawyer.

For all the talk of economic conservatism since W took power, the latest Fed / Treasury moves in response to the subprime mess are a study in extreme interventionism.

There's a piece in the latest Businessweek about how the Bear Stearns bailout is really an equity investment for the Fed, rather than a loan in the traditional sense of American central banking. As such, it's a very unique and maybe unprecedented undertaking. It might even violate the Federal Reserve Act.

I understand that the Fed is an independent entity, so you can't really lump it in with Republican politics. Still, Bernanke was a Bush appointment, and it's becoming pretty clear that Treasury Secretary Paulson (part of the administration itself) has been pretty involved. Further, both Bush and McCain have expressed support for these measures and many on the fiscal side as well.

Carl said...

Of course, both Pres. Bushes ended up campaigning on one thing (41: Read my lips; no new taxes; 43: reaching across the aisle, I'm a uniter not a divider) and governing oppositely. It may be unfair to compare Clinton to the Bushes, but it certainly does cause a voter to take pause.

This takes me back to those halcyon days of the early nineties when Clinton and his supporters gleefully assued us that "character doesn't matter." I guess you do sometimes get what you vote for after all.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

In response to egarber's second comment, I agree that the recent financial market interventions by the Fed are of a fundamentally different character than most of the Fed's prior interventions. As such, although I had not thought of this possibility until egarber raised it, the Fed's actions might well exceed its statutory authority.

On the other hand, I strongly believe that there was no serious alternative as a policy matter to bailing out Bear. Financial market contagion is a very real concern; and the markets are in turmoil right now. Too many innocent bystanders could be ruined by general financial collapse for the Fed to stand by and let "the market" discipline bad actors. The problem is that this is always true. That is, financial markets are uniquely at risk of contaminating one another. The current error is in recognizing that bailouts are sometimes necessary without recognizing that this necessitates a change in the rules of the game.

Garth Sullivan said...

mccain does not have a historic opportunity to change this country because he is running as more of the same and will face the difficult task of working with a stronger democratic congress for policies that the american people still won't like, despite their illogical decision to elect him in the first place.

an obama or hillary presidency will have a mandate to bring home the troops, overhaul healthcare, address serious economic issues (mccain adviser phil gramm is the last one you want handling the us economy) and other serious domestic issues.

you have to separate the hillary campaign, where she will say and/or do anything to get elected (like most politicians) and what she will do in office as President.

your headline is misleading because, for you it is not about the issues, but character.

i think you're holding her to an unfair standard.

by any stretch of the imagination, hillary is preferable to mccain as president. no matter what you think of her personally.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

I agree with garth sullivan that a McCain presidency would be much worse than a Clinton presidency; and as an economist, I especially agree with his comment about Phil Gramm.

The headline "Hillary Clinton and the Issues" is, contra garth sullivan, not at all misleading. The post argues that Clinton's stands on some issues are somewhat more progressive than Obama's but that there is strong reason to believe that she would not act in that way ON THE ISSUES if she were elected -- even beyond the usual "politicians can't be trusted" stuff. For me it is all about the issues, and Clinton has given me very good reason to doubt her when she says progressive things about issues.

It's unclear how this is an "unfair standard." I hold everyone to the standard that I will be more likely to support them if they have policy positions that I support and that I have reason to believe they will deliver on if elected. I argued that actions speak louder than words and that her actions suggest that her words will not be translated into action (even more than usual).

Referring back to garth sullivan's original comment on this post, it would be great to learn that I'm being too pessimistic. The fundamental disagreement here is with the statement that "you have to believe her, especially when she presents detailed policy saying what she will do." Wanting to believe her and believing her are two very different things.

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