Skepticism About Hillary Clinton From An Unexpected Source

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week, I explained why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for president, rather than Bernie Sanders.  Although I did not state the argument in this way, I was ultimately saying that too many Americans do not understand adjectives, specifically the modifier "democratic" in front of the word "socialist."  Sanders's quite accurate self-description as a Democratic Socialist should not scare people, but it does.  And that could cost Democrats both the White House and the Senate, in a year when Republicans are doing everything possible to lose on an epic scale.

Therefore, when Newsweek titled my piece, "Nation Isn't Ready for What Bernie Sanders Supports," that was accurate partly as a matter of substance but mostly of form.  As much as I would like people to be in favor of single-payer health care and the rest of Sanders's agenda, and as much as it appears that majorities or pluralities of people do favor the progressive agenda when presented on an item-by-item basis, it seems unlikely that Sanders's political revolution could win the battles that it would need to win, largely because conservatives could so easily demagogue against "socialism."

Even so, I understand the disappointment of Sanders's supporters that this is not their year.  I offered the somewhat bleak solace that life under a Hillary Clinton presidency would be the ultimate in diminished expectations: when you imagine that not much good will happen, every good thing that does happen will be a pleasant surprise.  That is not as good as watching a progressive revolution while it is happening, but it is better than life under President Name-a-Republican.

Nonetheless, I also understand that some people feel viscerally negative about Clinton -- not just by contrast to a more progressive alternative, but as a matter of having negative feelings about Clinton herself.  Here, I want to look at three anti-Clinton statements that I recently came across:
-- "I cannot trust her. ...  I feel like she can be bought on anything."

-- "Even if she has good intentions, her mind is not really geared toward people like me.  It’s geared toward people who are going to help her out."

-- "I do not believe anything that Hillary Clinton says. ...  I have come to believe that Clinton ... has no fundamental beliefs other than that she should be President."
The first two statements above were from Sanders supporters in Pennsylvania, as quoted in a New York Times article from the campaign trail.  The third quotation is from a person whose opinion I generally respect: me!  I wrote those (and even harsher) words eight years ago, when I was explaining why I supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for president.

How do I respond to those three comments today?  Actually, the first two are relatively easy, and even 2008 Neil Buchanan would have agreed with my response below.  My own change of mind is, however, perhaps a bit more interesting to explore.

The first two statements are ultimately about the trust issue, which polls consistently show to be a big problem for Clinton.  In the end, I agree with Times reporter Jill Abramson, who was quoted in Nicholas Kristof's recent op-ed saying that "Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy."  Kristof correctly pointed out that, although Clinton can be her own worst enemy, the narrative that she is untrustworthy makes no sense.  It is, if anything, proof that the Republican attack machine has succeeded in throwing enough dust in everyone's eyes to make Clinton appear to be something that she is not.

And the claims that Clinton "can be bought on anything" and that her mind is "geared toward people who are going to help her out" are, I think, simply wrong.  Taking large campaign donations from corporations (which I think she should not have done), and accepting big speaking fees from Wall Street banks (which reflected, at the very least, an unexpectedly poor ability to sense political danger) are not proof that she is being "bought," much less that she could change her views to fit the agenda of the people who pay her money.

Instead, Clinton is simply the candidate of choice for certain people who have liberal-ish views on various issues, and who have a lot of money.  Those people do worry me, and I hope that their influence in a Clinton White House will not be as strong as it was during her husband's or Obama's presidencies.  But that is not a matter of being a bought-and-sold politician.  For better and worse, Clinton is fundamentally what in other countries would be called a neoliberal, a person who starts from the assumption that a narrow, technocratic notion of "economic efficiency" is the proper goal of public policy, even when the goal of that policy is supposed to be liberal.

Both Clintons, after all, were movers and shakers in creating the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which spawned the anti-labor "New Democrats" who turned the party sharply to the right in the 1980's and 1990's, and who still exert influence on the policy debate through well-funded groups like Third Way, which continue to claim that Democrats need to be essentially Republican-lite.

When I said in 2008 that I could not trust Hillary Clinton, I was saying that I did not take her seriously when she mouthed progressive-sounding policy positions, because I thought that she was saying whatever was necessary to win the nomination while still harboring the DLC's sellout agenda that had led the Democrats so far to the right (only to find the Republicans running even faster and farther to the right).  So the worry in my mind has never been that Clinton was for sale, but rather that her commitment to progressive policy goals seemed to be opportunistic.  What is different now?

I am a strong supporter of organized labor, and in particular of school teachers.  The Obama Administration has continued the disappointing DLC-inspired treatment of unions as useful sources of election support that can be taken for granted when governing, and the Obama Department of Education has been especially disappointing on teachers' issues.

That recent history should, and did, make me especially skittish about Clinton on these important issues.  One thing that I think has become clear, however, is that Clinton is actually willing to take a stand against the teacher-bashing agenda that has become not only de rigueur on the right but popular among some big Democratic donors as well.  When Randi Weingarten, one of the most important teachers' union leaders in the country, both endorsed and defended Clinton, that meant a lot.

Hillary Clinton has spent her life surrounded by two types of people, those who genuinely think that the Democrats should be a center-right pro-business party, and those who disagree but think that that is the best that we can hope for.  I was never sure where Clinton fit in, but the past eight years have offered sufficient evidence that she is a liberal/progressive who has been conditioned to be incredibly timid.

This is one of the reasons that I am glad that Bernie Sanders has been so successful on the campaign trail this year.  Although it is surely true that Clinton will do some things in the next six months (and, I hope, the next eight years) that will have me grinding my teeth, she is a politician who knows how to read what the public can support.  And Sanders has shown that there is a much wider political audience for left-leaning policies than Clinton (and many other Democratic leaders) ever thought possible.

What I would say to the 2008 version of me, then, is that Clinton's political instincts have turned out not to be careerist, although there is clearly a lot of that at work with any politician.  She has, instead, shown over the last eight years that she is willing to respond to calls for policies that do not fit into the neoliberal mold.

What has impressed me the most, however, is the growing awareness of just how fearless Clinton can be.  Last Fall, when yet another Republican-led committee was trying to continue to exploit the Benghazi tragedy (specifically with the goal of harming Clinton's electoral chances), Hillary Clinton responded with an eleven-hour-long Iron Woman performance that still takes my breath away.

A President Sanders or a President Clinton will face a continuing onslaught of exactly those kinds of attacks.  Even though Clinton's embrace of a more left-leaning policy agenda has been somewhat hesitant, therefore, it is easy to imagine a Clinton presidency in which some good things happen, and in which the new president deals as well as possible with the Republicans' ceaseless attacks and obstructionism.

Clinton's track record is long and uneven, but I now believe that her heart is in the right place, and she will not wilt under the inevitable onslaught.  I am still hoping for the political revolution to take place, but in the meantime, Clinton's personal strength and political skills will allow her to help the Republicans continue to destroy themselves, leading the country toward the next stage in our political development.