What Should Hillary Clinton Do (or Not Do) Now?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last week, in "Hillary Clinton and the Heckler's Veto," I concluded with some sadness that the Hillary haters have won their war.  That is, even the Clinton detractors who are not Trumpian "Lock her up!" types have been so unfairly negative about Clinton for so long that her every utterance is now immediately shredded and recharacterized in absurd ways.  Although it should not have come to this, we have reached the point where Clinton can only make matters worse by saying or doing anything.  Anything at all.

As I pointed out, hatred of Clinton is such that she is also criticized when she does not say something.  That kind of criticism typically runs along these lines: "Oh, and if Hillary Clinton really cared about _____, shouldn't she have bothered to weigh in on this latest controversy by now?  Huh?  Shouldn't she?!"

The people who hate her -- and I am very much including reporters for The Washington Post and The New York Times, who took the worst behavior in the movie "Mean Girls" as a template for political reporting on Clinton -- never seem to feel so good as when they have fresh material from her to criticize.  And when she fails to deliver, they hate her for that, too.

My question today is what Clinton should now do in such a hostile environment.  When the hecklers are this relentless and unfair, and when action and inaction alike are taken as provocations by her detractors, how should she act?
For those readers who are not able (or perhaps inclined) to read last week's column, I can summarize my arguments and expand on them a bit here.

In a speech in India earlier this month, Clinton described what she (correctly) sees as the motivations behind Trump's core voters in 2016.  Summarizing what most post-election analyses have confirmed, Clinton pointed out that people in the more economically prosperous regions of the country were more likely to vote for her, while Trump's voters included a large group of white, older, economically vulnerable voters who -- with Trump's encouragement -- believed that they could force us to return to some mythical bygone age when the country was awesome.  "Make America Great Again" meant, after all, that America was no longer great, and the problem was apparently that we were not living in an idealized version of the 1950's.

Many Clinton haters, of course, pounced.  Again, it did not matter what she actually said, because they were going to start howling as soon as they heard that Hillary Clinton had said something.  This was like a reunion concert for reporters who miss the good old days of sarcastically sniping at Clinton while thinking that they were not helping Trump.

I focused in last week's column on two Washington Post columns, one by a reporter (Aaron Blake) who frequently writes news analyses critical of Trump (e.g., here) and the other by an op-ed columnist (Kathleen Parker) who is a conservative but no Trumpian.

As I noted in that column, Blake's anti-Clinton filter is so extreme that he actually wrote this: "It's difficult not to read Clinton's comments as an argument that her votes were more valuable — or at least more productive — than were Trump's."  Why?  Because Clinton pointed out that Trump's voters came from less economically prosperous areas.

Why should Blake read Clinton's words in the way that she clearly meant them -- supporting the idea that economically desperate people are sometimes willing to vote for extremists like Trump -- when he can have so much more fun distorting her statement into the absurd idea that a Democrat would argue in favor of tying the value of people's votes to their financial fortunes?

Lest one think that I am putting too much emphasis on that particular example, however, consider another of Blake's illogical leaps, in response to this quote from Clinton:
"And his whole campaign — 'Make America Great Again' — was looking backward. You know, you didn't like black people getting rights; you don't like women, you know, getting jobs; you don't want to, you know, see that Indian American succeeding more than you are — you know, whatever your problem is, I'm gonna solve it."
Was that Clinton saying that Trump supporters were (in many cases quite openly) pining for the days before "political correctness" and for the supposed social stability of the era before the civil rights and women's rights movements?  Not for Blake:
"But even the way she describes Trump's supporters alleged racism and sexism is pretty remarkable. It's one thing to suggest they were perhaps prejudiced, but Clinton says they didn't even want black people to have civil rights or women to work outside the home. Whatever you think of the modern-day GOP, there simply aren't a whole lot of Republicans arguing black people shouldn't have rights — or even telling pollsters this privately. Yet this is the picture Clinton painted of Trump's support."
Yes, "there simply aren't a whole lot of Republicans arguing black people shouldn't have rights," so Blake is absolutely certain that Clinton's description of the reaction by people like Trump and many of his supporters to political progress for minorities and women is completely wrong.  This is a veritable master course in "literalism for dummies."

Parker, meanwhile, peppered her column with snark, saying that Clinton "told an audience that she won in all the smart, cool places," and offering such brilliant commentary as this: "Hillary Clinton just can’t quit herself."  Again, if Clinton had chosen not to talk about the election, that would have satisfied no one either.  I can just imagine Clinton saying nothing about 2016 and Parker then writing: "Clinton is so smug and self-protective that she refuses even to talk about what everyone clearly came to hear her discuss.  She just can't stop taking her supporters for granted."

Am I exaggerating?  Parker said that Clinton's speech "started out by reiterating her disdain for those who failed to recognize her virtues," and winds up with this: "By her insinuations, she has demonstrated a loathsome prejudice against the poorly educated and unemployed, as well as rural whites, social conservatives and women who stay home with their children — to name a few."

Weirdest of all, however, Parker claimed that Clinton "hit a pandering low that puts a catalogue of others to shame" by mentioning Indian Americans in a speech in India.  One might have thought that Clinton was simply aware of where she was and noted that people of Indian descent are also subject to racism in the U.S., but Parker decided that Clinton "apparently noticed the darker pigmentation of her Indian audience and adapted."

Parker later added: "So, the people who voted for Trump resent Indian Americans’ success? Funny, because surely her audience was aware that the president selected Indian American Nikki Haley to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations."  There was no pandering in Clinton's speech, but I certainly know tokenism when I see it, and Parker happily traffics in it.

Between Blake and Parker, Blake is the more worrisome of my two subjects today, because he seems mostly to be on the ball and really should not have fallen in with the Clinton-is-always-to-be-criticized-no-matter-how-much-we-have-to-distort-her-words camp.  Parker also writes frequently about Trump's many failings, but she is a classic lightweight in the pundit game, failing even to understand the basics of policy matters on which she nonetheless is more than happy to opine.

For example, Parker once concluded that the insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act were doomed from the beginning because "Sick Person A gets insurance coverage only if Healthy Person B helps pay for it. Half the country is fine with this proposition. The other half would rather skimp on medical care than surrender a drop of freedom."  And Driver Who Gets In An Accident A gets insurance coverage only if Driver Who Did Not Get In An Accident B pays for it.  That is not surrendering drops of freedom.  It is what insurance means.

I am emphasizing the extreme logical errors -- and stylistic excesses -- of these two columnists not because they are unique but because they have so much company.  They and the people who think it important to attack Clinton to prove that they are willing to criticize Democrats as well as Republicans have created a world of funhouse mirrors in which Clinton's every move (and again, her every non-move) is another occasion to prove that they are unbiased.  Perversely, this means that bias against Clinton has become proof of lack of bias.

What, then, should Clinton do?  She must know by now that nearly everyone in her own party wants to stop being asked about her comments, especially because they will have to respond to distorted versions of her comments without being given the opportunity to correct the unfair spin that reporters will put on the questions.

And I should again be clear that I also think the best thing for her to do is simply to stop talking.  If she is a loyal Democrat, she has to take seriously the admonition: "First, do no harm."  Although she will be criticized for sins of omission as well as commission, the negative reactions to sins of omission seem to fall entirely on her, while her party colleagues are the ones who have to run for cover when she actually says something.

This must be a horrible situation for Clinton.  Even so, Democrats are actually very good at "disappearing" losing candidates, whether those losing candidates should have won (Al Gore and arguably John Kerry), had the bad luck to run against an incumbent in a strong economy (Walter Mondale), or ran weak campaigns (Michael Dukakis).  And with #MeToo making Bill Clinton no longer the adorable Big Dog rogue, Democrats are better off without both Clintons.  (To be clear, Bill Clinton's disgrace is his own fault, while Hillary Clinton's is mostly not.)

Even so, Hillary Clinton is just a few months past her seventieth birthday, and she seems vibrant and intellectually engaged.  She also cares quite deeply about many issues and would surely feel profound frustration if she had to become apolitical while she still has breath in her body.

How can she affect policy without being the anti-Midas touch to Democrats, who mostly agree with her policy positions but understandably have to distance themselves from her?  Somewhat ironically, Clinton needs to learn to be more secretive.  Having spent her career being accused of excessive caginess and outright lying, she can only do good at this point if she keeps a low profile and simply (and as anonymously as possible) supports good causes.

When she speaks, she must stick to the subject at hand.  In other words, even when she is not in campaign mode, she needs to re-learn the art of message discipline.  Fortunately, her considerable political skills demonstrably include refusing to take bait.

Because she has been turned into a she-demon even by people outside of Republican campaign rallies, Hillary Clinton must disappear from the radar screen if she wants to help her side win the coming political battles.  That does not mean that she has to play golf or retire to Florida, but her policy work has to be its own reward.  Even though I have often criticized her (for every good reasons), I realize that this is unfair.  And I know that she is up to the task.