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