We all know who she is. But who is she really?
[This is part of my series: The 2016 Stump Speeches.] Hillary Clinton’s candidacy presents a unique challenge. As a presidential campaign begins, the question in voters’ minds is usually “Who is this person?”, and a responsible journalist tries to answer it by presenting information. But the question I keep hearing about Clinton is “Who is she really?”
We are drowning in information about Hillary, but so much of it — positive and negative alike — is false. For decades her critics have been lying about her, and she has countered by presenting a series of images that aren’t completely consistent. So what should we believe about her? If we elect her, what kind of president can we reasonably expect her to be?
The speeches she’s been giving since she started campaigning are meatier, in terms of detailed policies, than just about any other candidate in the race. And I’ll get to those speeches and policies below. But it’s hard to know how to listen to her proposals until you come terms with that over-arching question: Who is she really? Those policies she’s putting forward — which ones come from the heart, and which are driven by expediency?
My Hillary reading project. To answer those questions, I decided to try to clear my mind of prior conceptions and read her books in order: It Takes a Village (1996, a book about policies related to children and families, which she illustrates with stories about her own childhood and her experiences with Bill and Chelsea, as well as stories from women she’s met all over the world), Living History (2003, about her two terms as First Lady), and Hard Choices (2014, covering her Secretary of State years).
Along the way, I found myself drawn to read two books by the reformed right-wing hack David Brock: The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (1996; this was originally intended to be a hit job prior to Bill’s re-election campaign, but it went oddly astray and became an interesting biography) and Blinded by the Right (2002, giving an insider’s view of the Arkansas Project, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded to dig up and publicize dirt about the Clintons).
What I was looking for in Hillary’s books was a consistent author’s voice. I believe writers always reveal more about themselves than they intend. (I worry about that sometimes.) It’s in their word choices, the tone of the stories they tell, the metaphors they use, and what topics they think flow naturally from other topics. If Hillary really wrote those books — and after reading them, I strongly believe she did — then her character must be in there somewhere, no matter what image she may have wanted to project.
Personal impressions. The simplest thing I can report after my reading project is that I like Hillary a lot more than I did when I started. When she appears on TV, she is so often either responding to an attack or anticipating one, so she seems guarded. But I think she feels much more secure when she is alone with a text (which already tells you something about her), and that’s when her self-effacing charm comes out.
She tells one story I love: Hillary knows she doesn’t sing well, so she mostly just doesn’t do it. (In her announcement speech, after she made fun of her Republican rivals by quoting lyrics from the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, she quipped: “You’re lucky I didn’t try singing that.”) But years ago she made one exception: After Chelsea was born, she sang lullabies. That stopped one day when Chelsea became old enough to put rudimentary sentences together. The toddler held up one finger and said, “No sing, Mommy.”
I also now have my own impression of her mysterious and unique relationship with Bill. Critics sometimes portray their marriage as a sham of political convenience, but I don’t think so. Bill Clinton is quite simply the most interesting person Hillary has ever met. She describes their relationship as one long conversation that started back at Yale in the 1970s and is still going. No matter what he might do, the world would be a dull place without him to talk to. For his part, I don’t think Bill would know who he was if he couldn’t see himself through her eyes. In all those infidelities, he’s never been looking for someone to replace Hillary, and if she dies first he will be devastated.
The establishment radical. As for understanding Hillary’s politics, a simple formula will take you a long way: progressive ends through pragmatic means. One of David Brock’s more interesting insights is the formative effect of her student-government years at Wellesley. Like most American colleges and universities, Wellesley changed a lot between 1965 and 1969. But unlike many other educational institutions, Wellesley stayed surprisingly peaceful through it all. Brock attributes that to Hillary’s cadre of student activists:
Hillary was able to co-opt the campus administration by calibrating student demands and winning change through the system.
He sees that experience as imprinting a paradigm of change on her: Hillary is not a revolutionary. She does not seek to overthrow the power structure, but is constantly probing to see how much the powers-that-be are willing to give up to keep the peace and stay in power. Brock labels this “establishment radicalism”.
[At Yale] Hillary took her moral bearings from the radicals, while favoring establishment tactics – precisely the formulation she had told Saul Alinsky would be most effective [when she turned down his job offer and went to law school]. This enabled her to work within the mainstream and to retain the respect and admiration of those in power.
You can hear this in her voting rights speech (see video below): “Progress is based on common ground, not scorched earth.” That’s why she won’t offer liberals red-meat rhetoric about “the bankers” or “the billionaire class”. They represent a power center she hopes to negotiate concessions from, not battle to the death.
The establishment-radical paradigm got reinforced by her biggest failure: healthcare reform. Not only did HillaryCare not become law, she was blamed for the 1994 Democratic rout that made Newt Gingrich the Speaker of the House. She learned her lesson: Push the powers that be too far, or get too far out in front of the country, and you’ll be slapped down.
You can see that cautious vision at work in her account of the Arab Spring uprisings: She presents herself (in Hard Choices) as the hesitant voice in the administration (compared to Obama’s idealism; this is one of the rare instances where she portrays herself out of harmony with Obama). Pushing tyrants like Mubarak to liberalize was right up her alley, but seeing them overthrown by young activists who offered no political program or organization to replace them made her very uneasy. (You can tell she feels vindicated by how things have played out.)
Half a loaf. That pragmatism often causes her to champion half-a-loaf policies when in her heart she still wants the whole loaf, or even to accept a step backwards to prevent a longer slide. You can see that in the Clinton administration’s gay-rights record. Bill came into office wanting gays to serve openly in the military and not thinking about marriage equality at all. He ended up with don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the Defense of Marriage Act — two policies both he and Hillary supported repealing in more recent years. But by supporting those compromises he avoided measures that would have been harder to reverse, like a federal marriage amendment. Through DADT and DOMA, the door to progress stayed ajar until the political climate changed.
It is both a strength and a weakness that Hillary never floats a pie-in-the-sky vision. Behind every Clinton proposal is the judgment: I think we could really do this.
Ironically, one of the best criticisms of that approach comes from the young Hillary Rodham, in the commencement speech she gave to her graduating class at Wellesley in 1969:
For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.
If I could fix one thing about Hillary’s current rhetorical style, I would add a dash of dream-the-impossible-dream.
The wonk-in-chief. The other big thing to understand about Hillary is that she’s a wonk, a technocrat. She believes that smart people can figure things out, and that simple ideological solutions are often wrong. The most from-the-heart line in her economic policy speech was:
And, please, let’s get back to making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology.
I don’t think she believes in ideology. Here’s what I mean by that: What’s real to her are people and the situations of their lives. (That comes through most clearly in It Takes a Village.) Ideologies are abstractions, and while abstractions can be handy tools for thinking things through, they aren’t real in the same way that people are real.
Worse, ideologies exaggerate conflict and hide agreement. My ideology may directly contradict yours, but when we get down to cases and start looking at individuals, very often we might want the same things for them. That’s how she can negotiate with the Iranians and make deals with insurance companies: If we can get down to cases and then create new abstractions from them, maybe we agree on principles that weren’t part of our prior ideologies.
But that approach demands a respect for facts and the real world. Her own respect for such expertise runs deep and traces all the way back to being a girl of the Mad Men era (just a few years older than Sally Draper) hoping to go places women had never been. Being smart and working hard to master the details of a subject was young Hillary’s claim to a place in the Man’s World. She knows that when expertise is disregarded, that’s when prejudice and old-boys’ networks and all the other defensive mechanisms of the status quo have free rein.
She has a wonkish sense of integrity that is easy to overlook: In the three speeches discussed below, every idea comes with either a proposal to implement it, or a promise that such proposals will come later. That discipline won’t let her indulge in the sweeping rhetoric that you’ll hear from other candidates to her left and right. Bernie Sanders can promise to break up the big banks. But in Clinton’s economic speech, you can almost hear her unspoken thoughts on that: What we really ought to be doing is getting the irresponsible risk out of the banking system, and while the too-big-to-fail banks are part of that, there are sometimes bigger risks in “the shadow-banking system, including hedge funds, high-frequency traders, non-bank finance companies; so many new kinds of entities, which receive little oversight at all.” She anticipates her future proposal, where she may have to give a little on the big banks in order to get the risk-reduction she wants.
That wonkish integrity may have cost her the presidency in 2008. She and Obama had very similar half-a-loaf healthcare plans, because neither dared to come out for the single-payer system that I suspect both would prefer. But once committed to her plan, she refused to misrepresent it: Obama pretended he could implement his plan without the unpopular individual mandate, but Clinton would not say that.
She’ll compromise in constructing her proposals, but once she has a plan she takes pride in it and won’t distort it.
But can I trust her? Just this week, we saw another example of what I’m coming to see as the standard pattern: The NYT had a BIG story: Two State Department inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into possible misuse of classified information in Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State. After dodging the bullets of countless scandals in the past, maybe this one would finally nail her.
Except … well, it wasn’t actually a criminal investigation. They had to issue a correction about that. And it wasn’t specifically targeted at Secretary Clinton. Another correction. And a Newsweek journalist who got hold of the same documents says even the corrected NYT story misinterpreted the whole thing. He concluded: “the piece is wrong in all of its implications and in almost every particular related to the inspector generals’ conclusions.”
In short, the big story has evaporated, leaving behind no specific accusation, but a general impression that Clinton must have done something wrong. That’s the pattern. The only atypical thing about this “scandal” is that it fell apart so quickly. If you take a post-investigation look at everything from Whitewater to Benghazi, there’s nothing there. But the overall effect is to shroud Hillary’s public image in a general haze of distrust.
Compare this to the residual cloud of pseudo-scandals that hangs over President Obama: his birth certificate, death panels, Fast & Furious, using the IRS to target the Tea Party, stealing our guns, plotting to invade Texas, and so on. By the Obama administration, most liberals had caught on to the right-wing attack machine, and the way it can sometimes co-opt “liberal” media like the NYT. So we shrug off those Obama stories. But your conservative friends and relatives are sure there must be a fire somewhere under all that smoke. But the attacks on Hillary started in a more trusting era, so her cloud seems more real.
Sometimes I hear this question: Given that Hillary carries this baggage, can’t Democrats nominate a ticket doesn’t have such a cloud hanging over it? Sure. It’s simple: Find candidates so perfect that the opposition can’t even lie about them. Good luck with that.
Now let’s look at the campaign speeches.
Announcement speeches are always sited in symbolic places. The choice of Roosevelt Island outside of New York City sends several messages: First, Hillary is running as herself, the former Senator from New York. If she had wanted to run as Bill’s wife, she’d have announced at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.
Second, as she points out in the speech, you can see the new World Trade Center from there. She’s acknowledging that we’re in a post-9-11 world, and she’s identifying with the collective heroism of New York City. But she’s also sending the message that New York isn’t stuck in 2001; it remembers, but it’s getting on with its life. America should do the same.
But finally, and most important, Roosevelt Island indicates that she’s running as a Democrat and claiming the heritage of the Democratic Party as it was remade by Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican nominee will have to run away from both the obstructionist Republican Congress and the disastrous legacy of George W. Bush. (That’s why Jeb Bush’s logo just says “Jeb!”.) But Hillary is confidently invoking the legacies of both President Obama and President Clinton. In the Economics speech she says:
Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess left behind. I think the results speak for themselves.
In this speech, she ties the failure of those two Bush presidencies to ideas Republicans are still pushing.
We’re still working our way back from a crisis that happened because time-tested values were replaced by false promises. Instead of an economy built by every American for every American, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.
She recalls FDR’s historic “Four Freedoms” speech, and organizes her own speech around another set of four:
If you give me the chance, I’ll wage and win four fights for you.
Those fights are:
- To make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top. More about this in the economic speech. But the key point is: “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other.”
- To strengthen America’s families. Here you can see my point about ideology. When Republicans talk about “strengthening the family”, they mean an archetype of family: heterosexual Mom and Dad married once-and-for-all-time, raising their biological children in a house down the street from their Christian church. But Hillary is talking about the actual families that live in America: households of people related in all sorts of ways, who are struggling to get by and to achieve their full potential.
- To maintain America’s leadership for peace, security, and prosperity. This part would fit in most Republican speeches, minus the endorsement of diplomacy. Most of my disagreements with Clinton are in defense and anti-terrorism, but I have to admit she is probably more in tune with the country than I am.
- To reform our government and democracy so that it works for everyday Americans. More on this in the voting-rights speech, where she goes into detail about fighting the Republican efforts to suppress voting. But there’s also campaign finance reform: “We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people. We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote rather than every corporations right to buy elections. If necessary I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”
The basic principle is unchanged since Bill’s presidency: “If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead.” Hillary describes this as the “basic bargain” of our society.
The most fundamental liberal/conservative battle of frames revolves around who the poor are. Republicans push a Makers vs. Takers frame, in which the poor are moochers. A government safety net should keep them from dying in the streets, but leave them miserable enough that they will get off their asses and work. As Paul Ryan put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”
When that frame takes hold, Democrats lose: We become the people who want to tax away your hard-earned money and give it to the moochers, who could succeed if they tried, but don’t bother because life in the government hammock is too pleasant.
In the Democratic frame, the poor do work hard, but life at the bottom of society is so arduous that it’s difficult to do more than survive day-to-day. If we want poor people to invest effort in building a future for themselves and their children, we need to make their lives a little easier, and check that the uphill roads we expect them to travel are still open.
The Clintons have specialized in co-opting Republican rhetoric, as in the “work hard” above. Here’s another example:
I firmly believe that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But that’s hard to say if there aren’t enough jobs for people that we’re trying to help lift themselves out of poverty.
She steals Republican rhetoric around “growth” and organizes her own economic proposals around three themes: strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.
Hillary critiques the Republican growth prescription like this:
For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at top by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules, it will trickle down, it will trickle down to everyone else. Yet every time they have a chance to try that approach, it explodes the national debt, concentrates wealth even more, and does practically nothing to help hard-working Americans.
Her view is that strong growth depends on a large and vibrant middle class. “Inequality is a drag on our economy.” So anything that blocks people’s rise into the middle class is a growth problem. So her growth agenda involves equal pay for women, legal status for immigrants, and child care for working parents. It also requires investment in productivity by both the private and public sectors. The tax code should encourage private investment (and discourage moving jobs overseas), and government should finance an “infrastructure bank” to build and maintain airports, roads, a better electrical grid, and world-class internet (which we don’t have now). And it requires encouragement of the clean energy sources we’ll need in the future.
These investments will create millions of jobs, save us money in the long run and help us meet the threats of climate change.
Making “strong” and “fair” separate points is really more rhetoric than substance, because she believes they go together:
You can’t have one without the other. We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness. We need both.
The fairness part of the speech covers increasing the minimum wage. (She hasn’t committed to a national $15 rate, which I see as a combination of her wonkishness and commitment to political possibility. As a wonk, she knows that the minimum wage should vary according to the local cost of living. A $15 rate probably won’t hurt employment in big cities, but in rural Iowa it might. So politically, $15 is not the hill she wants to die on.) Also: encouraging unions and profit sharing, defending and “enhancing” Social Security, shifting more of the tax burden back onto the rich, setting “a high bar on trade agreements” (though she still hasn’t taken a clear position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and “seeing every 4-year-old in America have access to high quality pre-school in the next 10 years.” She promises more specific proposals on student debt and K-12 education in a later speech.
The long-term growth portion of the speech focuses on Wall Street, whose focus on quick profits through financial manipulation is largely responsible for the collapse of 2007-2008.
To the extent that such behavior was criminal, she wants to prosecute it:
There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior. And while institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong, and on my watch it will change. … Too big to fail is still too big a problem … and we will prosecute individuals as well as firms when they commit fraud or other criminal wrong-doing.
She wants to defend the Dodd-Frank reforms, get more of a regulatory handle on “the shadow banking system”, provide tax credits for businesses that invest in their workers, and reform the capital gains tax to encourage more long-term investment. (The details of that came out later.)
We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country. Because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other. … I call on Republicans at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.
… We need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy an election of a corporation.
- Repair the Voting Rights Act to restore the pre-clearance procedures thrown out by the Supreme Court.
- Expand absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
- Ensure that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a vote.
- At least 20 days of in-person early voting, including weekend and evening hours.
- Universal, automatic voter registration when people turn 18, unless they opt out.
What Clinton has going for her. In resume terms, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified candidates ever. She had an unofficial-but-central role in her husband’s governorship and presidency. She served eight years in the Senate, and four as Secretary of State. (I recommend Hard Choices as a world tour of American policy. It’s organized by region, so you get a country-by-country review of America’s foreign relations during Obama’s first term. By the time you’re finished, you’ll probably know more about America’s challenges abroad than most Republican presidential candidates do.)
But experience is only a face-card in politics if you know how to play it. John McCain could never make it work against Obama, primarily because McCain always seemed like the one more likely to make some rash, spur-of-the-moment decision. I think Hillary will know how to use it, particularly against a national neophyte like Bush or Walker. In debates, she’ll spring the proper I-was-there story about Putin or Bin Laden at just the right moment, and it will be effective.
Where I wish for more. The progressive case against Hillary is that the current crisis doesn’t call for making the best deal possible with the powers that be, it calls for revolutionary change. Wall Street, the fossil fuel companies, the billionaires buying our elections — that whole power structure has to go. Just changing course from center-right to center-left won’t save our economy, our society, or the planet.
In foreign policy and defense, she is too identified with what Glenn Greenwald calls the National Security State. I don’t think she’ll start another Iraq War, but the drone wars in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries would continue. And I don’t see her reining in the surveillance of the NSA.
The trick that I don’t think either Bill or Hillary (or Obama) ever mastered was how to take the half-loaf while continuing to raise energy behind the full-loaf vision we really need. Bill Clinton showed how to minimize the damage of the conservative consensus that formed during the Reagan years, but he never reversed it or inspired a new liberal consensus. Neither has Obama, and I’m skeptical that Hillary will either.
At the same time, I think the progressive ire and distrust towards Hillary that I see on my Facebook feed is overblown. She negotiates and constructs compromises — with Iran, with Wall Street, whoever — that’s who she is. It’s a trait, not a flaw.
We could do a lot worse in our next president, and if we don’t elect her I suspect we probably will. But is that a good enough reason to support policies — like drones — that I think are huge mistakes?
So the question boomerangs back to me: Can I take half a loaf in a president? And if I do, can I keep reaching for more later?