Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Same Liberal Reacts to the Democratic Presidential Drama, Part I

by Neil H. Buchanan

Two days ago, I wrote "A Liberal Reacts to the Republican Presidential Circus" here on Dorf on Law.  In that post, I tried my hardest to find a way to say that at least one of the 14 remaining Republican candidates would be notably less bad as a president than the others.  Although there is a subgroup that is in a different category of scary-awful, I could not find a way to convince myself that any of the others would be meaningfully "moderate" (a word that I place in scare quotes because it has been so degraded over the last couple of decades) or who might somehow represent a break from the relentless rightward lurch of that party.  When Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are your purportedly moderate candidates, words have lost all meaning.

In any event, I also have some interest in the race on the Democrats' side.  Indeed, given how disturbing all of the Republicans are, it matters all the more that the Democrats nominate a strong candidate.  However, as we have seen during the Obama years, electing a not-Republican candidate who holds many center-right views (especially on economic issues) can lead to baseless claims that "liberal policies don't work."  For example, even though President Obama followed the center-right orthodoxy on both deficits and health care, liberals have been left defending policies that we would otherwise have no inclination to defend.

But this is not the time to think about substance, at least if one follows any of the written or televised political narratives.  This is all about horse-race politics, and arguing about who can convince the world that their candidacies are heading in the right direction.  Even following these stories as sparingly as I do, the narrative on the Democratic side is rather easy to discern: Hillary Clinton is in trouble; Bernie Sanders is surging and surprising everyone along the way; Joe Biden is deciding; Martin O'Malley is there; and the others are Democratic versions of George Pataki and Jim Gilmore.

With the caveat that none of this really matters, because the election is still more than thirteen months away, I hereby offer some thoughts about Hillary Clinton and her candidacy.  I will return to the others another day.

I have never been a fan of the Clintons, and I have generally believed that the female Clinton was even less liberal than her triangulating male partner.  Six months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the revelation that Clinton's emails during her term as Secretary of State were run through a private server, I suggested that liberals like me should simply get used to the idea that this level of entitlement and secrecy were part of the Clinton package, and we might as well accept that fact and learn to live with it.

Even so, I recognize unfair attacks when I see them.  Moreover, even though I argued that "nothing will ever change, when it comes to the Clintons," I only meant that the infuriating rules-don't-apply-to-us-and-true-loyalty-means-defending-us-at-all-costs default mentality of the Clinton machine would never change.  On matters of policy, people can change (within limits), and it is possible that Hillary Clinton has updated her views over time.

Indeed, Clinton might be the best example available to support the claim that we should want our leaders to be followers.  She does seem to have some core liberal beliefs, which she was very willing to ignore in the 1980's and 1990's when the power in the Democratic Party was clearly gravitating toward the neoliberal union-bashing types.  Her fateful vote in favor of the Iraq war while she was a senator clearly communicated her depressing willingness to make decisions on the basis of perceived political costs rather than principles.

Still, there is at least some reason to think that Clinton would act like a liberal (within limits) if she were president.  She herself has said that as the times change, she changes with them.  In the current context, she is suddenly in favor of anti-inequality measures that would have been unimaginable coming out of her mouth not too long ago.  If the voters elected Clinton, and the Republicans stayed true to form in opposing her at every turn, she is at least strategically savvy enough to learn from Obama's ill-fated efforts to be bipartisan.

Even so, a person who blows with the wind is an unreliable ally, making this defense of Clinton more in the nature of saying, "Well, her history of taking bad policy stands might not mean anything, if she now has political motives for taking good policy stands."  At best, this would merely be a way to make myself feel less wretched while reminding myself that she is still better than any Republican.

I do, however, actually have some positive things to say about Clinton.  One is that she is an amazing fighter who knows how to stand up against relentless attacks.  Also, I saw a commentary recently that noted how Clinton is remarkably good at not committing gaffes.  Think about how easy it would be for her to make some unguarded remark, especially given the scrutiny that she endures day after day.  No matter how hard her opponents try, however, she does not give them ammunition.

Some argue that this merely means that she is scripted.  One cannot commit a gaffe when one merely repeats talking points, or so the story goes.  But Clinton actually does talk about issues, and if she is reading from a script, it is a pretty complicated one.  Inasmuch as there is any truth to the charge that Clinton is robotic, however, her backstage confrontation with a Black Lives Matter activist last month showed how good she can be when she is not giving a canned speech.

After I watched that video, I felt actual admiration for Hillary Clinton, for the first time in my life.  Soon after the video emerged (transcript here), NY Times columnist Charles Blow (with whom I often agree) surprised me by excoriating Clinton for her response, claiming that she had engaged in diversionary tactics, and saying that she was "agile and evasive."  I strongly disagree.  I saw a political leader, unexpectedly confronted by an aggressive questioner, who genuinely tried to engage in a serious conversation.  Most importantly, when the activist told her that it was really a problem with the attitudes of white people, she pointed out the logical implication of that assertion: "Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to white people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems ..."

When the questioner clarified his point, Clinton was "agile" in a good way, saying that changing people's hearts is not a meaningful political strategy.  She may be a technocrat, but she showed that she understands why technocratic things matter.  It is all about changing laws, allocation of resources, and so on.  It is, in its most stripped down form, about winning elections in an environment where many hearts have gone cold, and then using the power that comes from winning elections to do good.

As I noted above, watching that exchange was transformative for me.  Clinton is still not my idea of a great candidate, although (as Charles Blow himself pointed out more recently) much of the narrative about Clinton's supposed weaknesses is driven by the pundits' prime directive: Political stories have to be about rises and falls, and Clinton was so far up that the only possible direction was down.  Whereas I used to buy into the notion that she has nothing but ambition, it is now obvious to me that there is real intelligence at work, and that her version of being realistic can be more idealistic than I previously realized.

This is not to say that I am now a Hillary Clinton supporter.  In future posts -- we do have many more months of this ahead, after all -- I will comment on the other Democrats, both as a matter of substance and politics.


Anonymous said...

HRC is most intelligent, most profound, and most admirable woman I have ever seen in action (except maybe outside my mother). She honestly reminds me of Lincoln (far more than Obama ever did) and Lincoln was one of the most reviled men of his age.

So why don't I trust her? The fundamental problem is that there are two stands of political thought at war with each other. Those who think pragmatically that politics is the art of the possible and those who think in Havelian terms that politics is the art of the impossible, of leading people towards their highest ideals.

People like Lincoln, the Clintons, Obama, etc. are people who believe that politics is the art of the possible. They lead by following. I'll never trust that approach because I am too much of an idealist. The "art of the possible" always smacks me as a thief hiding personal profit under the guise of public ambition. The ultimate evidence in favor of that charge is what happened to Chelsea--she went to Wall Street and married an investment banker. There is--at their root and core--nothing egalitarian about the Clintons (or Obama for that matter). Liberal politics is just their way of getting ahead in the world.

Joe said...

Lincoln did not "lead by following" ... Mr. Longfellow's remarks are a bit much for me there, including given the fact there are various women leaders out there that are intelligent and admirable (don't see HC as overly "profound" myself) in such a way not to make Hillary Clinton so up and front there.

If she wasn't married to Bill Clinton, and this isn't her fault -- FDR was helped by name and family too -- we wouldn't spend so much time on her. I would like here, e.g., to give a shout-out to Senator Gillibrand. She was appointed to fill HC's seat while others were thought better options. It is unclear she would have been if Elliot Spitzer was still governor at the time. She is a great politician and has supported various good things, including medicinal marijuana, gay rights & women issues (such as fighting sexual abuse in the military). But, she also plays the political game. That's how it works.

Anyway, I'm not that excited about HC for various reasons. (1) She is more moderate than I'd like, sometimes this means she holds positions that are conservative in various respects. Her Iraq vote still rankles (2) I simply don't like the idea that we have two Clintons in the White House with over 300M. Seems there should be someone else out there. (3) I'd like a new face and Clinton will bring back the same old b.s. back again. I get b.s will happen whoever is running, but at least give me new b.s. The email stuff alone is very tiresome.

But, I do think she has political chops and will have learned from her mistakes in 2008 (she still is not as personable as some & will act in an insider sort of way, let's say, but many strongly support her & she can be a good campaigner). Plus, she supports various basic Democratic principles like gay rights, reproductive liberty, choosing generally reasonable judges etc. Her tax policies might leave something to be desired in certain respects but overall much better than the alternative. She also might be more open to use of force overseas than I'd like but probably will be overall sane. And so on.

A nod to the other candidates. Jim Webb leaves something to be desired but his remarks on criminal justice & the problems with use of force overseas were appreciated. Chaffee is a bit of a vanity project though independent voices are appreciated too. Lessig is not really someone I take very seriously even if his heart is in the right place. Sanders is Sanders, of course, fighting the good fight. And, O'Malley has some good things to say, though is lost in the shuffle.

David Ricardo said...

Ms. Clinton is, well, complicated. Reality is that no one knows what she will be like as a President. But reality is also that Mr. Sanders is unlikely to be the nominee and is probably unelectable. And more reality is that Ms. Clinton is extremely preferable to the alternative ticket, which at this point could be one of the following.

Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina
John Kasich and Marco Rubio
Jeb Bush and Brian Sandoval

and those are just the less worse of the worst. Every campaign on both sides always has people wishing for a candidate who is not running. Remember when everyone wanted Rudy Guiliani, Fred Thompson, Rick Perry? How'd that turn out.

Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Joe said...

I'm fully onboard with the "perfect is the enemy of the good" reality and in a related area said as much when people were upset the USSC didn't speed up recognition of same sex marriage and regarding various criticisms of Obama. It is a matter of degree there. I would prefer a non-HC, but unlike the Republican options, definitely can live with her. On that front, especially given what he has had to deal with, Obama deserves a lot of respect.

Lessig is a one issue candidate promoting campaign finance reform. I question his approach & strategy. But, on that subject, Sen. Whitehouse had a good op-ed:

David Ricardo said...

Given the slowly dripping bleeding of the e-mail fiasco that is occurring as we speak it may be necessary to revise the comment to read that the perfect is the enemy of the not-very-good-but-better-than-the-alternative. Has there ever, ever, been a dumber scandal then Ms. Clinton's email stupidity. Aren't scandals supposed to involve sex or money or both?

The current state of affairs of the Democratic party, a party without natural leaders, a party without a governing philosophy and a party whose only strategy is to be not as bad as the Republicans has been cruelly exposed.