Clinton-Bashing As the Last Gasp of the Republican Party

by Neil H. Buchanan

What is it about Hillary Clinton that bothers Republicans so much?  Even more than her husband or President Obama -- indeed, more than any politician within anyone's memory -- Clinton evokes a seething, blind hatred from those on the opposite side of the aisle.

This is especially difficult to understand in light of Clinton's notably successful efforts at bipartisanship while she was in the Senate, as well as her history of center-right policy views that positioned her very much on the right end of Bill Clinton's triangulating administration.  That she has more recently adopted some center-left views is, I am sure, an unpleasant development from the standpoint of Republicans, but their hatred of Hillary Clinton long predates any of that.

Last week, I wrote about Clinton's "high negatives" in polls with voters and how those poll results are erroneously likened to people's much more negative views of Donald Trump.  It has become an established trope of in-the-know political commentary that the two presumptive nominees are both widely reviled.  As I pointed out, however, people can use words like "dislike," "untrustworthy," and similar negative terms in quite different ways: "People can say that they 'hate' getting food poisoning at a restaurant, and they can also say that they 'hate' when the chef uses too much cumin in the curried potatoes."  Both statements are honest, but they are also not at all comparable.

Still, many Republicans will tell you that Hillary Clinton is like food poisoning, not merely an unpalatably spiced dish.  To a large degree, this is the result of Republicans having spent years sitting around campfires telling stories to each other about the Clintons, seeing who can spin the most scary yarn.  She has come to embody the Blair Witch, a succubus, and every frightening villain that Republicans can conjure.

I understand, therefore, that Clinton hatred is somehow both precognitive and post-cognitive; but because I am always most interested in issues, I am fascinated by the mismatch between Clinton's actual not-at-all-extreme policy views and Republicans' visceral revulsion toward her.

One of the ways that Republican elected officials have tried to deflect attention away from the outrages of Donald Trump is by painting Clinton as an unthinkable alternative.  For example, an unknown Republican back-bencher in the House recently said of Trump's series of outrageous statements: "Am I offended sometimes at the comments? Yes I am.  However, what offends me more are Hillary Clinton’s actions."

In a way, trying to analyze that statement is pointless.  After all, many members of Congress have dreams of leadership positions, cabinet posts, and so on.  (Is there anything that indicts political careerism more completely than the idea that some politicians with no interest in, say, labor issues would surely crawl through broken glass to become Trump's Secretary of Labor?)  But watching political animals in their natural environment can be very revealing, and it is notable that this particular congressman thinks that it is somehow meaningful to distinguish Trump's mere words from Clinton's supposed actions.

Unless this guy actually thinks that Clinton killed Vince Foster, what "actions" could he possibly be talking about?  Trump has been telling us in no uncertain terms what actions he will take if he becomes President, and Clinton has been doing the same.  Clinton's policy views are different from most (but not all) Republicans', but Trump is raising serious doubts about whether electing him would be the turning point toward a post-constitutional autocracy in the United States.

It is one thing for the increasingly ridiculous Paul Ryan to say that "the last thing we want is a Democrat in the White House like Hillary Clinton."  (Seriously?  The "last thing"?  She is really worse than a person whom even Ryan describes as obviously racist?  Electing her would be worse than a political coup?  Worse than a presidency that would destroy Ryan's political party?)  Ryan is in over his head on both policy and politics, a career politician trying to figure out how to pretend to be a serious adult, and he cannot stop himself from reverting to over-the-top partisanship.

Today, the New York Times Magazine published a fascinating long-form article by Mark Leibovich, in which he discusses the various forms of denial currently at work in the Republican Party.  Discussing the sad post-primary life of Marco Rubio, Liebovich writes: "Rubio also holds the astonishing position of saying he’ll vote for someone he has previously declared unfit to hold the American nuclear codes. You envision him under a mushroom cloud, assuring his kids that it could be even worse — at least he didn’t vote for Clinton."

This level of anti-Clinton derangement has certainly trickled down to the party's grassroots.  Leibovich describes the never-Trump senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, who told Leibovich that people in his state "say: 'I’m distraught. I’m opposed to everything Hillary Clinton stands for, and yet I think I have to vote for her. How do you make sense of this? What should I do?'  These are young evangelical women, teary sometimes. They say, 'I can never tell my kids I voted for that man.'"

Even allowing for rhetorical excess, can it really be true that a young woman in Nebraska is opposed to everything that Clinton stands for?  Other than abortion, which is obviously a high-salience issue for many such voters, what has Clinton ever said or done that would make it possible to say that she is on the bad side of every (or nearly every) issue?

Thankfully, some Republicans are willing to admit that this has gotten out of hand.  Leibovich offered two insightful comments from Republican insiders.  Ed Rogers, a Reagan/Bush I alum who now is a Republican lobbyist, said: "The Clintons have never been the demons ideologically that we’ve made them out to be.  From a character standpoint, they’re pretty bad, but Hillary isn’t the frightening offensive character that Trump is."

Whether one thinks that her character is "pretty bad" depends on how willing one is to ignore the fact that all of the investigations of the Clintons have turned up nothing but a lot of innuendos and unsubstantiated suspicions.  Hillary Clinton has a tendency to become insular when attacked, but I cannot imagine anyone enduring the lifelong character assassination that Clinton has faced without becoming highly defensive.

Perhaps the "character" point was best summed up by John McCain's chief of staff Mark Salter, who told Leibovich that Trump is "just unfit for office," whereas, "I mean, the worst thing you can say about her is, she’s kind of a hack."

And that is exactly right.  About the worst thing that you can say about Hillary Clinton is that she has sometimes been kind of a hack.  The negative things that I have written about Clinton over the years, in fact, have been based on the idea that she sometimes tends toward hackishness, such that one could reasonably suspect that she will allow short-term political calculations to color her views of, say, a financial regulation bill or a question of military strategy.  That is hardly comforting, but how does that make her different from Mitch McConnell, or Ryan, or McCain, or holier-than-Trump Mitt Romney?  How does it make her the second coming of the Wicked Witch of the East?

By contrast, the best things that you can say about Clinton are that she is extremely well informed on issues, that she has actually done a lot of good things both inside and outside of public office in working for change (especially in fighting for the rights of women and girls in the U.S. and around the world), that she is incredibly tough, and that she actually takes into account new evidence and logic to adjust her views.  There are good reasons for a 1990's center-right Democrat to have seen the light and moved to the center-left, after all, and she has been willing to learn and change.

If all the Republicans can do now is continue to hope that saying "Hillary Clinton!!" enough times will scare people, then that tells us more about their lack of anything useful to say than it does about Clinton or the Democrats.