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.