Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Clinton-Bashing As the Last Gasp of the Republican Party

by Neil H. Buchanan

What is it about Hillary Clinton that bothers Republicans so much?  Even more than her husband or President Obama -- indeed, more than any politician within anyone's memory -- Clinton evokes a seething, blind hatred from those on the opposite side of the aisle.

This is especially difficult to understand in light of Clinton's notably successful efforts at bipartisanship while she was in the Senate, as well as her history of center-right policy views that positioned her very much on the right end of Bill Clinton's triangulating administration.  That she has more recently adopted some center-left views is, I am sure, an unpleasant development from the standpoint of Republicans, but their hatred of Hillary Clinton long predates any of that.

Last week, I wrote about Clinton's "high negatives" in polls with voters and how those poll results are erroneously likened to people's much more negative views of Donald Trump.  It has become an established trope of in-the-know political commentary that the two presumptive nominees are both widely reviled.  As I pointed out, however, people can use words like "dislike," "untrustworthy," and similar negative terms in quite different ways: "People can say that they 'hate' getting food poisoning at a restaurant, and they can also say that they 'hate' when the chef uses too much cumin in the curried potatoes."  Both statements are honest, but they are also not at all comparable.

Still, many Republicans will tell you that Hillary Clinton is like food poisoning, not merely an unpalatably spiced dish.  To a large degree, this is the result of Republicans having spent years sitting around campfires telling stories to each other about the Clintons, seeing who can spin the most scary yarn.  She has come to embody the Blair Witch, a succubus, and every frightening villain that Republicans can conjure.

I understand, therefore, that Clinton hatred is somehow both precognitive and post-cognitive; but because I am always most interested in issues, I am fascinated by the mismatch between Clinton's actual not-at-all-extreme policy views and Republicans' visceral revulsion toward her.

One of the ways that Republican elected officials have tried to deflect attention away from the outrages of Donald Trump is by painting Clinton as an unthinkable alternative.  For example, an unknown Republican back-bencher in the House recently said of Trump's series of outrageous statements: "Am I offended sometimes at the comments? Yes I am.  However, what offends me more are Hillary Clinton’s actions."

In a way, trying to analyze that statement is pointless.  After all, many members of Congress have dreams of leadership positions, cabinet posts, and so on.  (Is there anything that indicts political careerism more completely than the idea that some politicians with no interest in, say, labor issues would surely crawl through broken glass to become Trump's Secretary of Labor?)  But watching political animals in their natural environment can be very revealing, and it is notable that this particular congressman thinks that it is somehow meaningful to distinguish Trump's mere words from Clinton's supposed actions.

Unless this guy actually thinks that Clinton killed Vince Foster, what "actions" could he possibly be talking about?  Trump has been telling us in no uncertain terms what actions he will take if he becomes President, and Clinton has been doing the same.  Clinton's policy views are different from most (but not all) Republicans', but Trump is raising serious doubts about whether electing him would be the turning point toward a post-constitutional autocracy in the United States.

It is one thing for the increasingly ridiculous Paul Ryan to say that "the last thing we want is a Democrat in the White House like Hillary Clinton."  (Seriously?  The "last thing"?  She is really worse than a person whom even Ryan describes as obviously racist?  Electing her would be worse than a political coup?  Worse than a presidency that would destroy Ryan's political party?)  Ryan is in over his head on both policy and politics, a career politician trying to figure out how to pretend to be a serious adult, and he cannot stop himself from reverting to over-the-top partisanship.

Today, the New York Times Magazine published a fascinating long-form article by Mark Leibovich, in which he discusses the various forms of denial currently at work in the Republican Party.  Discussing the sad post-primary life of Marco Rubio, Liebovich writes: "Rubio also holds the astonishing position of saying he’ll vote for someone he has previously declared unfit to hold the American nuclear codes. You envision him under a mushroom cloud, assuring his kids that it could be even worse — at least he didn’t vote for Clinton."

This level of anti-Clinton derangement has certainly trickled down to the party's grassroots.  Leibovich describes the never-Trump senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, who told Leibovich that people in his state "say: 'I’m distraught. I’m opposed to everything Hillary Clinton stands for, and yet I think I have to vote for her. How do you make sense of this? What should I do?'  These are young evangelical women, teary sometimes. They say, 'I can never tell my kids I voted for that man.'"

Even allowing for rhetorical excess, can it really be true that a young woman in Nebraska is opposed to everything that Clinton stands for?  Other than abortion, which is obviously a high-salience issue for many such voters, what has Clinton ever said or done that would make it possible to say that she is on the bad side of every (or nearly every) issue?

Thankfully, some Republicans are willing to admit that this has gotten out of hand.  Leibovich offered two insightful comments from Republican insiders.  Ed Rogers, a Reagan/Bush I alum who now is a Republican lobbyist, said: "The Clintons have never been the demons ideologically that we’ve made them out to be.  From a character standpoint, they’re pretty bad, but Hillary isn’t the frightening offensive character that Trump is."

Whether one thinks that her character is "pretty bad" depends on how willing one is to ignore the fact that all of the investigations of the Clintons have turned up nothing but a lot of innuendos and unsubstantiated suspicions.  Hillary Clinton has a tendency to become insular when attacked, but I cannot imagine anyone enduring the lifelong character assassination that Clinton has faced without becoming highly defensive.

Perhaps the "character" point was best summed up by John McCain's chief of staff Mark Salter, who told Leibovich that Trump is "just unfit for office," whereas, "I mean, the worst thing you can say about her is, she’s kind of a hack."

And that is exactly right.  About the worst thing that you can say about Hillary Clinton is that she has sometimes been kind of a hack.  The negative things that I have written about Clinton over the years, in fact, have been based on the idea that she sometimes tends toward hackishness, such that one could reasonably suspect that she will allow short-term political calculations to color her views of, say, a financial regulation bill or a question of military strategy.  That is hardly comforting, but how does that make her different from Mitch McConnell, or Ryan, or McCain, or holier-than-Trump Mitt Romney?  How does it make her the second coming of the Wicked Witch of the East?

By contrast, the best things that you can say about Clinton are that she is extremely well informed on issues, that she has actually done a lot of good things both inside and outside of public office in working for change (especially in fighting for the rights of women and girls in the U.S. and around the world), that she is incredibly tough, and that she actually takes into account new evidence and logic to adjust her views.  There are good reasons for a 1990's center-right Democrat to have seen the light and moved to the center-left, after all, and she has been willing to learn and change.

If all the Republicans can do now is continue to hope that saying "Hillary Clinton!!" enough times will scare people, then that tells us more about their lack of anything useful to say than it does about Clinton or the Democrats.


Paul Horwitz said...

Neil, a question and a comment. 1) Why do you describe Clinton as having adopted some center-left "views," as opposed to her having adopted some center-left "positions" or "statements?" Surely those are not the same thing, unless one thinks that all the conversos really were good and sincere Christians and that all primary candidates facing unexpectedly robust challenges engage in sincere changes of mind. 2) While I happen to agree that a great deal of the quantity, nature, and fervor of investigation of Clinton is perfervid and questionable (but not all of it), it is fair to point out that her insularity, defensiveness, and desire to shut down inquiry rather than bore them to death with details are hardly new features and have been a fairly standard part of her response instincts since at least 1992 or 1993, along with or despite mixed counsel from her advisors, some of whom have favored this approach and some of whom have thought that the best approach is to get over the matter fast by doing a data dump and answering questions until everyone in the room is bored.

Lowry said...

I'm more interested in why Clinton is more deserving of being demonized by the left and the greenies than Barack Obama was.

Here is Jill Stein, her Clinton comments early on are disturbing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4RV1q70gr4

Stein says that Clinton is not a feminist, in other places she says that HRC doesn't "reflect the values of being a mother," posts with the hashtag #shesnotwithus, accuses Clinton of being bribed by the Saudi government...even Bernie refers to her as "Secretary Clinton" but Stein calls her "Hillary."

Here is an anti-Hillary meme packed with misinformation, a relative of mine posted this online: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/6e/0c/62/6e0c62c57ea7aa41c34e9b2a97e03466.jpg

Joe said...

Barack Obama has been bashed by a segment of the left (heard his education policy being called "evil" ... talk about how drones "murder" ... people upset about his economic policies etc.).

If Obama was running, think (to be blunt) him being black would temper some of the demonization (perhaps suggesting a bit of sexism here), but if he was in Clinton's spot, I think he too would be seen as a sellout of sorts if the alternative was Sanders. Clinton is tainted with a longer history of being an insider (and various things her husband did) though. So, she's in a worse position than Obama. Also, she's probably a bit more conservative than Obama, especially in foreign policy (though push comes to shove, what we really have in her Iraq vote ... which deserves criticism but Obama didn't have to make a choice as senator).

Joe said...

Obama when he ran also was more aspirational than Clinton. Clinton probably by sentiment and also by situation (building off Obama) is more "one step at a time, art of the possible."

Clinton in this respect turns some people off.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Interesting comments. Thanks to all. In response to Paul Horwitz, can you please explain what you mean by "unless one thinks that all the conversos really were good and sincere Christians and that all primary candidates facing unexpectedly robust challenges engage in sincere changes of mind"? I'm genuinely at a loss, but based on the rest of your comment, I would like to respond, once I am certain what you're saying.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Neil: I think I can clarify what Paul meant. "Conversos" refers to Jews in medieval Spain and Portugal who converted to Catholicism in the face of the Inquisition but secretly remained Jewish. The term "Marrano" was formerly used but "Converso" is now favored. Even to this day there are descendants of Conversos who observe a custom of lighting candles in closets on Friday nights as a relic of their ancestors' Jewish sabbath observance, although these descendants are otherwise Catholic. For a substantial period after the Inquisition, converts (from Islam as well as Judaism) in Iberia were suspect. Thus, the continuation of suspicion can be seen in the expulsion from Spain of Moriscos--descendants of converts to Christianity from Islam--in 1609. There is a revealing sub-plot around Moriscos in Book 2 of Don Quixote, but by now I've really gone off-point so I'll get back to 21st century politics.

I take it Paul is suggesting that Clinton is no different from any other run-of-the-mill establishment candidate who, to fend off a "base" primary challenger, moves towards the base. Like those other "conversos," her change of heart is to be met with suspicion. Put differently, there is no reason to think that Clinton really has changed her VIEWS. She is like any other establishment candidate, a converso who feigns having moved left (or in the case of a Romney running in a GOP primary, right) while secretly holding onto her prior (centrist) views.

Of course, I could be misunderstanding Paul.

Paul Horwitz said...

No, that's exactly it. Too clever by half, no doubt. I'm not questioning the value of changes of policy that are not also changes of sincere views, incidentally, although they may be unstable and one doesn't know whether they're even changes of policy, as opposed to lip service, until a candidate is in office. I was just surprised by the ascription of a change of mind as opposed to strategic positioning, small point bough it may seem. One of Clinton's definite if mixed virtues and selling points, after all, is that she is a smart politician.

Shag from Brookline said...

Let's contrast this religious back and forth with Trump's recent statements before evangelicals that he would un-wall Jefferson's separation of church and state - and make the state pay for it.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

My thanks to Mike and Paul for clarifying Paul's point -- and for the interesting history lesson. I'll probably end up writing more about this -- in fact, I'm sure I will -- but for now I'll simply agree with Paul that Hillary might not have really changed. That's why I said that the best we can say is that she has learned and adapted, and the worst we can say is that she's a hack. But to the point of my post, if she's an unchanged triangulating hack (who ignores the wisdom of Mike's post last Friday), that's all the more reason for Republicans not to hate her.

Re Paul's comment, I'll accept your claim about her early secretiveness, because I simply don't know and I trust your judgment. However, I think it's at least contestable that the data dump strategy would work. Just as one example, the email thing arose because Republicans doggedly went through everything jthey could find about her, and they eventually found a private email server under the Christmas tree. The Lewinsky scandal, as Mike reminded me, was also the result of ceaseless digging by Clinton haters. I'm certainly drawn to the "Why does she not learn that the coverup is always what gets you?'" story, but there's ample reason to think that that's never going to be true when the Republicans have the Clintons in their sights.

Paul Horwitz said...

I'll just close out my end of the conversation by agreeing, of course, that there is no guarantee--there never is, and certainly not where there is a dedicated opposition--that the "bury them in disclosure" approach will work. (And, obviously, there is no guarantee that a stonewalling approach works either.) Recall that I raised the point to suggest that this had been a characteristic approach for quite some time and from before the full onset of anti-Clinton investigation. My general view, which I think can be said to be shared in bulk by Neil, is that the belief that Trump is a dangerous candidate and Clinton a vastly preferable one is accurate but does not eliminate the responsibility to be aware of her own virtues and flaws or to criticize her appropriately; and the psychology of American party politics is such, in my view, that partisans in the heat of a campaign season often end up succumbing to motivated reasoning out of a desire not only to oppose a bad candidate but to convince themselves that their favored candidate is not just the better choice, but is positively wonderful in and of him- or herself. I would rather that citizens, having made the choice of a candidate, also remain able and ready to monitor and criticize that candidate if and when he or she attains power. The split within the Clinton advisor camp between those who favor disclosure in response to accusations and those who favor disclosing as little as possible is one of long standing, and without taking sides on that split we should certainly be aware of it in anticipation of Clinton taking office. To my mind, that is especially important where the larger coterie includes people like David Brock or Sidney Blumenthal.