by Neil H. Buchanan
The big message at the Democratic National Convention last month was that Hillary Clinton has, at long last, embraced a progressive policy agenda, embodied not only in the Sanders-assisted official party platform but in the speeches that the candidate and nearly all of her backers delivered.
This was big news, because throughout this long campaign Clinton has been haunted by memories of the Republican-friendly policies that people rightly associate with her husband's administration. The now-infamous crime bill was the focus of much of the attention during the primaries, along with Bill Clinton's enthusiastic embrace of "free" trade. It was not only Bernie Sanders's most avid backers who wondered whether Hillary Clinton had truly updated her views, however, but liberals and progressives in her own camp as well.
I believe that she has changed her views. But even if I am right about that, it is important to understand that there are many people who actually hope that her apparent change of heart was all for show. I am not, moreover, talking only about Republicans, who surely are hoping that the next Clinton administration will prove to be as center-right oriented in its policy actions as the previous one was.
No, there is also a cottage industry of opinion-makers who are desperately hoping that Hillary Clinton can be coaxed into saying, "You thought I was a progressive? Suckers!" As soon as Clinton's post-convention bounce started to make people comfortable that a Trump presidency will never happen, that dangerous chorus began.
Consider two of the supposedly liberal columnists on the op-ed page of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman and Frank Bruni. Friedman, after another vapid re-boot of his world-is-flat embrace of globalization (this time dividing the world into "Web People vs. Wall People" -- can you guess who the good ones are?), then decided to tell the world "How Clinton Could Knock Trump Out." Answer: By changing her policy proposals to appeal to Republicans.
I wish that it were possible to exaggerate the silliness of Friedman's column. He leads off, however, by saying that the one group that was "conspicuously absent" from the Democratic convention was "the people who drive our economy by inventing things or by borrowing money to start companies that actually employ people." You know, the "risk-takers" who must be nurtured because they "risk their savings to start companies that provide work and paychecks."
This is standard cant in the Republican Party, where the makers/takers distinction has so firmly taken hold. And Friedman is absolutely certain that the Democrats have made a mistake by advocating policies that focus on the people who actually produce goods and services, rather than promoting policies that would please their bosses.
What specifically are the Democrats doing that would discourage those brave innovators? Friedman tells us that "the anti-bank sentiment of the Democratic Party" will destroy us, because "small community banks provide about half the loans to small businesses,
and it is precisely those banks that have been most choked by the
Where is the evidence for this? The financial reforms coming out of the Great Recession were aimed at too-big-to-fail megabanks, and although the Dodd-Frank Act left a lot to be desired, it has led to a notable improvement in the soundness of the largest banks. Only in Friedman's mind are there would-be innovators who are being turned away by local banks, with mournful loan officers saying, "If only we did not have to follow so many rules, we could throw money at your brilliant ideas."
Friedman then red-baits Clinton, saying that she adopted a "socialist-lite" agenda, which is bad because "Socialism is the greatest system ever invented for making people equally
poor," whereas "Capitalism makes people unequally rich, but I would much rather
grow our pie bigger and faster and better adjust the slices than
redivide a shrinking one."
If this were 1991, I would not be surprised by that kind of statement coming from a supposed friend of the Democratic Party. But what kind of bubble does a person have to have lived in not to notice that the growing pie of the post-1980 era has been accompanied by dramatic increases in inequality and outright stagnation for all but the wealthiest Americans?
Moreover, even setting aside the falseness of his claim that Clinton's policy proposals would shrink the economy, what is Friedman even talking about? We cannot redivide, but we can "better adjust the slices"?
In fact, we do not even have to go back as far as 1991 to see the ridiculousness of Friedman's analysis. When Friedman says that Clinton "will need to get stuff done, not just give stuff away," he is simply channeling Mitt Romney's campaign from four years ago. Now, however, it is the Democratic nominee who is supposed to say to Sanders's voters and other progressives that our "concerns can be addressed only with economic growth." Now shut up, you muddle-headed complainers, and let the smart businessmen go back to making the economy great again. Trickle-down lives!
Friedman's colleague Frank Bruni weighed in three days later, writing that "Hillary's Summer of Love" is an opportunity for Clinton to move to the right, just like her husband did two decades ago. That Bruni's only specific example is Bill Clinton's misguided welfare reform law speaks volumes.
As always, Bruni manages not to say anything specific but to do so with a lot of words. He calls on Clinton to take a "big-tent tack." The lesson that he took from President Obama's experience with Republicans is that they attacked Obama because he "defied" them during his first two years in office. If only Obama had been nice, Bruni seems to be saying, they would have been nice back.
So, Bruni's bottom line for Clinton is, like Friedman's, to adopt a Republican agenda. Why? Because we need to move past intractable partisanship, and even though Democrats are likely to win, they must not then allow themselves to do what they said that they will do.
There are two lessons here, one about policy and one about politics. On policy, the Friedman/Bruni (Fruni?) approach is simply unreconstructed neoliberalism. They think that everything would be better if the Democrats would stop imposing "imperfections" on the market. (Bruni, for example, has spent a lot of time over the years attacking unions, especially teachers' unions.)
What this worldview misses is that there is no such thing as a "free" market, domestically or internationally. The argument is not over whether to have rules that govern markets -- and that make markets possible in the first place -- but about which kinds of rules to put in place.
But in the Fruni view, there is a simple more-versus-less choice in government involvement in the economy. They are trying to get Democrats to abandon their proposals to allow the economy to work better for everyone, not because of any evidence that progressive policies fail, but because Republicans oppose them.
All of which leads to the political lesson. The one big issue that has dominated commentary about Hillary Clinton's campaign is "the trust issue" -- the claim that people think she is a serial liar and cannot be trusted to do what she says. Clinton, we are told over and over again, has no core principles.
Again, I do not believe that to be true. There is plenty of evidence that she has looked at the evidence of the last few decades and concluded that what seemed like a plausible path in the 1990's (although even back then, the case for neoliberalism was weak) has been discredited. She was surely responding to the political pressures of the primary season, but even so, she had already adopted policy positions that were notably more progressive than those that she espoused earlier in her career.
Whether or not I am right about that, however, is there anyone who thinks that Clinton could survive a "pivot" (Friedman's word) during the campaign? And if she wins, even though Bruni admits that Democrats would have the "right and the imperative to implement their most deeply cherished ideas," Clinton is supposed to do us all a favor by suddenly abandoning her campaign's major themes.
If she actually does win, I expect that there will be times when people will feel that she is too willing to compromise. In fact, I already can picture myself writing angry columns on one topic or another, imploring her to be more liberal. But what we are talking about here is different, with Friedman and Bruni and their ilk telling Clinton to jettison her party's hard-won unity and tell progressives that she never really meant the things that she said.
The problem is that, even though commentators like Fruni have nothing useful to say, they have a surprising amount of influence in Washington. President Obama aggressively courted "opinion makers" and obviously responded to their calls to, for example, pivot to deficit reduction long before the economy was strong enough to tolerate the negative impact.
We should also remember that the Frunis of the world spent the entire Obama Administration telling us that he would have been ever so much more successful if only he would have adopted a reasonable, centrist approach. When anyone actually described what that approach would include, however, it turned out that Obama's actual policy proposals were further to the right than the purportedly appealing centrist policies that he was accused of stubbornly rejecting.
Clinton may or may not be where I think she needs to be on policy issues, but her political instincts are certainly keen. She has to know that it would be madness, before or after the election, to say to the world, "Yeah, you know all that stuff I've been saying? Never mind." Trust issues, indeed.