Tuesday, November 04, 2014

How Not to Attack Hillary Clinton

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Today is voting day for the mid-term elections, about which I currently have nothing to say.  A truly inane conventional wisdom will surely have congealed among the commentariat by about 10pm this evening.  If that conventional wisdom turns out to be inane in an interesting way, I might comment on it in a future post.

For now, however, I will note that today is the closest thing we have to an official start to the next presidential election campaign.  Like Christmas shopping season, which is supposed to begin officially the day after Thanksgiving, but which seems to start earlier every year, the 2016 presidential campaign has been going on in one form or another since election night two years ago.  Even so, after today's voting, whatever remaining restraint that has been exercised by the pundit class will be a distant memory.

So here is my first shot at this not at all pressing matter.  We do not know whether Hillary Clinton will blow her unblowable lead again, as she did in 2008, but we can at least say that she is a deeply troubling prospect as the Democratic presidential nominee.  We must also allow, however, that she is not problematic on EVERY issue, and we can be sure that she will be the subject of many unfair attacks.  If she is going to be attacked, I think it matters how she is attacked.  That is my argument here, in any case.

My thoughts are inspired by the cover article on this month's issue of Harper's magazine (available here, but unfortunately behind a paywall), by Doug Henwood: "Stop Hillary!  Vote no to a Clinton Dynasty."  Henwood is a longtime lefty writer, and the founder/editor of a fringe publication (to which I used to subscribe) called Left Business Observer.  He is smart and fierce, and I often agree with him.  He is, however, more than a bit problematic.  He shares the style of many people who have spent time on the radical left, making blistering personal attacks that amount to public denunciations.  In the early days of the internet (the mid-90's), when discussion lists first became a big deal among academics and activists, Henwood was a divisive presence on one of the lists that I then followed, nastily attacking every perceived deviation from (his version of) the true lefty line without ever giving the benefit of the doubt to his targets.  Everything became very personal, very quickly.  Anyone who has ever read the letters section of The Nation will recognize the style.

As I noted above, Hillary Clinton really is someone who should be unacceptable to Democrats as their nominee.  (I write this knowing that it is quite possible that, 18 months from now, I will be explaining why she should win the election, which is a different question entirely.)  But Henwood's article (even though it makes some very good points, to which I shall turn momentarily) is unfortunate, because he attacks Clinton in a way that is both unfair and that will probably make her more popular among the Democratic base.

The first problem is that Henwood relies heavily on Dick Morris as a source.  Yes, that Dick Morris.  Although Henwood acknowledges that Morris is a cancer on American politics, he never actually tries to justify his reliance on Morris.  At most, he says that Morris is a hypocrite in his attacks on Clinton as a gun-for-hire.  He acknowledges that Morris's comments on both Clinton and her husband "should be taken with a substantial grain of salt," but he leaves it at that.  Morris's attacks then figure prominently in the piece.

And Morris's comments are predictably empty. For example, regarding Hillary Clinton's status as a carpetbagger Senate candidate in New York State, Henwood says that she ran for the open seat even without, "according to Dick Morris, ever having shown the slightest interest in the city or state." In a footnote, Henwood writes of Clinton's time in the Senate: "Morris assured me that I would find the list of Hillary’s accomplishments 'adorable.'"  Having acknowledged that the Clintons had dumped Morris for his many personal and political problems, then, Henwood relies on Morris to make personal, conclusory attacks on his now-enemies.

Which brings me to the second problem with Henwood's piece.  In his zeal to portray the Clintons as negatively as possible, and to diminish Hillary Clinton's many undeniable accomplishments, Henwood (relying again on Morris) tries to say that the former Senator never did anything of substance during her time in the Senate. After sneering at her sponsorship of symbolic bills (but then acknowledging that "this is the stuff of retail politics"), he notes that Clinton cosponsored the Nurse Retention and Quality of Care Act. "But a Senate staffer told Morris that the bill was going to pass anyway, and that to claim Hillary 'was instrumental in passing it is pure puff.' "

And it only gets worse from there.  Regarding the extension of unemployment benefits for victims of the 9/11 attacks, Henwood quotes a source (finally, a source other than Morris) as saying that New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, did the "heavy lifting" on passing the bill.  Of course, if it were Schumer who were in Henwood's cross-hairs, we can be sure that somehow his work would be deemed insubstantial.  For example, Henwood might simply ask "what New York senator wouldn't have pushed for something like that?"  Oh, wait, that is what Henwood did say about Clinton.  Which means that she cannot possibly win, because if she does her job as a senator from New York, she is merely doing her job as a senator from New York; but if she had not been involved (even to do the light lifting), perhaps on the theory that Schumer had it well in hand, is there any doubt that people like Henwood would have faulted her for not doing what a New York senator should do, and using that to prove that she really was the worst kind of carpetbagger all along?

The cumulative effect of this kind of hatchet job (which, to be clear, is a deviation from the standards that Harper's usually applies to its articles) will surely be to drive people toward Hillary Clinton, not away from her.  I immediately started thinking, "Wait a minute, she was the senator who passed important legislation protecting military personnel from predatory lenders."  One can always rely on the standard attack line against any member of a legislature, which is that one cannot prove that any particular piece of legislation would not have happened but for that one person's efforts, but that proves too much, because it would categorically disqualify all but former governors from running for President.  One need not argue that she was an ineffective senator to make the case against her presidential candidacy.  Doing so simply undermines the credibility of the overall message.

All of this is a shame, because Henwood also makes some very good points about the Clintons that are key to understanding why they should not be the Democrats' dream team for 2016 and beyond.  I was actually surprised that Henwood was able to make a retelling of the Whitewater mess interesting, but frankly, the most that can do is to make us suspicious that the Clintons play fast and loose with the facts.  And we already knew that.  One of the things that many Democrats seem to like about the Clintons is that they love the political fray, and they know how to play dirty.  Especially after seeing what the Republicans did to Obama for eight years, I doubt that anyone is worried about whether Hillary Clinton should have recused herself from certain legal work in Arkansas because it was relevant to state business.

Henwood does identify two issues about which I was not previously aware.  They are also arguably old news, but they are much more relevant to 2016.  The first is that, early in her career, Clinton used the "regulatory takings" argument in court to try to invalidate a ballot measure that had limited electricity rates.  Although, by this point, one should assume that Henwood is at least exaggerating when he describes Clinton as an "early architect" of that argument, he is right that the argument is now a key element in the anti-government toolbox on the right.  Her association with it, even though it was in a long-ago legal proceeding, is consistent with the suspicion among liberals that Clinton's commitments are deeply business-friendly, and that she and her husband have made it all too acceptable in supposedly liberal circles to take right-wing arguments as the inescapable norm.

The second issue is even more troubling.  We have known from the beginning of Bill Clinton's emergence as a Democratic Leadership Council star that he was a union basher.  What I did not know was that the Clintons and Morris had specifically picked a fight against the teachers' unions in Arkansas, vilifying the unions in ways that have now become standard fare among the vacuous so-called centrists who align with Democrats.  One could imagine, during that time period, an opportunistic Democrat going after one of the industrial unions, many of which at the time were easy pickings because of media-stupid leaders and corruption scandals.  The Clintons, however, were early movers in attacking teachers.  That strategy is still paying its ugly dividends today.

Henwood, then, managed to report some previously not-widely-known facts that importantly feed into the narrative that really should make Democrats suspicious of the Clintons, and that should cause people to view Hillary Clinton as a bad choice for President.  (Of course, we might also worry about the lack of apparent alternatives.  Andrew Cuomo, who appears to be the other potential heavy hitter who might run, is already more Clintonian than the Clintons.)  Unfortunately, Henwood did so in an article that was mostly devoted to a brand of journalism that should turn people off.  Even with the important issues that I described above, my take-away from the article was: "Geez, if Hillary gets bashed like this from the left, she'll look sympathetic, and any chance of beating her will be lost."  There are many reasons to hope that she will not be the nominee in 2016.  Doug Henwood's (to say nothing of Dick Morris's) negative opinion of her is not one of them.


Joe said...

Thanks for this.

I'm wary of Hillary Clinton though she's a lot better than various other people, particularly the likely Republicans.

But, smear jobs are not helpful.

David Ricardo said...

I think it is a fair question for Mr. Buchanan that given his deeply held ambivalence about Mrs. Clinton who is it exactly that he would want to have the nomination.

The Democratic party is in dire straits, and it is safe to say that even before any returns are in tonight they will be in far greater dire straits after the 2014 mid term election. There are vast parts of the nation where they are not just non-competitive, they are non-existent. South Carolina is electing two Senators this time, and no one, not even the citizens of South Carolina know the names of their opponents or if they even have some. The turning of Texas is not happening; West Virginia and Arkansas are becoming solidly Republican. The Democratic Party is not at this time a national party.

The leaders of the party are old and tired. Nancy Pelosi stayed on as Minority Leader, and not only has she been ineffective but she has effectively blocked any younger, smarter and more energetic Democrats from moving up. Harry Reid, pathetic. The Governors, yeah right. And Democrats apparently don’t understand that growth has to come from the states, that control of state legislatures is necessary to prevent the type of gerrymandering which results in a Democratic majority of voters and a Republican majority in the House. Democrats are truly pathetic.

So as a result of the incredible deterioration of the Democrats under Mr. Obama there is simply no bench strength. And if Mr. Buchanan does not want Mrs. Clinton or is not enthusiastic about her, whom exactly does he want?

Joe said...

I'm unsure how the Democratic Party is in "dire straits" They will likely win a few key state races. Midterms usually go against the presidential party in various ways. On various issues (gays, health care, etc.) the nation trends their way. If Clinton runs, good chance they win in '16. etc.

Not sure how "ineffective" Nancy Pelosi was. How was she particularly "ineffective"? What would some other minority leader do? For instance, is the House (controlled by Republicans) seen in a positive light these days or something?

Non-competitive races is a concern but there is nothing special about that. Many not knowing the competitor of safe seats is not new. Still, in a strong Republican stronghold like SC, about 40% voted against the Republican incumbent senators. I figure "citizens of SC" then know their names.

Who Neil Buchanan supports for '16 would be interesting to know.

Paul Scott said...

Elizabeth Warren would be my pick; and I am guessing Neil's as well. Kerry would also be high on my list.

David Ricardo said...

If this is not dire straits for the Dems then I don’t want to ever see what dire straits looks like. Those who think things are not horrible for the Democratic party are part of the problem, a refusal to face reality.

Ok, the results are not all in, but how does losing several incumbent Senators compared to no loses with the Republicans look? Remember when Kentucky and Georgia were going to be competitive races, how’d that turn out? (Kentucky was called before the polls closed). Virginia is not decided, but remember how that was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Dems? And Florida, how did that Governor’s race turn out? Oh and Texas turning purple, forgetta bout it. (And while no one is yet saying that W. Va. Senator Manchin will change parties or that the so called Independent Senator from Maine won’t go Republican, but keep those thoughts in mind).

The only argument that can be made that the Dems are not in serious trouble is that with Republicans taking over the Senate and the nation being exposed to how they really feel as opposed to their so called moderate candidate the Dems may have a chance to recover. Dems when not because of their governing ability but because voters are continually fooled by Republicans and vote them in only to vote them out after they see what they get. Obama won only because he wasn’t George Bush or Mitt Romney. Mr. Buchanan needs to get his pen ready to write about the debt ceiling crisis to come, because there is no way Republicans will pass an increase without demanding concessions from Mr. Obama (and anyone willing to bet he won’t cave?).

As for picking a preference other than Mrs. Clinton, it has to be a viable candidate, someone who would actually run and someone who could possibly win. So no, Sen. Warren and Secretary Kerry are not alternatives. And it would be nice if the alternative to Mrs. Clinton had a recognition factor with the electorate higher than 1%.

Joe said...

"Obama won only because he wasn’t George Bush or Mitt Romney"

I get that it's a midterm election and the opposition party did well after six years of the majority party (sounds familiar) controlling the presidency plus, but really, that is the ONLY reason?

I continue to think you are laying it on too thick.

David Ricardo said...

And in the glow of morning I don’t think I laid it on thick enough.

1. Of the 10 Senate races involving Democratic seats Republicans won 9.
2. Georgia and Kentucky were supposed to be close, they were blowouts.
3. Kansas was supposedly a Democratic opportunity, didn’t work.
4. Republicans now control the Governorship in all of the industrial Midwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Ohio race was a joke, a farce, an embarrassment. And except for Illinois Republicans control the state legislature in those states.
5. Democrats took one Governorship, in Pa, but Democratic strongholds Massachusetts, Illinois and even Maryland fell to Republicans. Only Massachusetts was close.
6. Ed Gillespie ran a close enough race to become the 2017 Governor of Virginia.
7. Democrats have nothing, nothing in the South. And West Virginia and Missouri are becoming solidly Republican; Kentucky probably in a few years. Remember a few years ago when Montana had a Democratic Governor and two Democratic Senators? How many decades before that happens again.
8. For a state that is supposedly turning purple Texas turned sharply red. No, Wendy Davis wasn’t ever going to win, but she lost by a massive amount.
9. Only the fact that Republicans ran farcical candidates in Delaware, Missouri, Indiana, Colorado and Nevada in the prior two elections has prevented the Republicans from approaching a filibuster proof majority.

The 2014 election must be examined in terms of the trend, not the traditional 6 year presidential phenomena. And the question that started this off, who else besides Clinton do the Democrats have? The cupboard is bare, it is empty. Democrats, at least for now are a dead parrot.

Joe said...

"Kerry would also be high on my list."

Who? John Kerry?! http://www.mediaite.com/tv/john-kerry-rules-out-2016-presidential-run-im-out-of-politics/ smh if that's the idea

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