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.