Reconciled to Hillary
by John Lawrence
It is sometimes asserted that the shortest moment of measurable time in Washington, DC is between the light turning green and the driver behind you honking the horn. Not today. For today, that distinction belongs to the millisecond between Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her candidacy for president and the unleashing of a torrent of criticism, dismay, and anguish. And that’s from Democrats.
Many have shared my experience of speaking with Democratic friends who are ambivalent about the Clinton candidacy, yet reconciled to her winning the nomination, and most certainly resolved to voting for her. In fact, I haven’t encountered a single Democrat who has any doubts whatsoever how they will vote should Clinton, as expected, win the nomination.
The Hillary hesitancy is due in equal parts to reservations about her opinions on particular policy matters (especially an inclination in favor of military interventionism and a disinclination towards intervention into Wall Street shenanigans) to concerns that she may have too many battle scars and raise too many ghosts of crises past, to a sense that it is time for a new generation of leaders to step into the national spotlight. Some, recalling the 1990s, also have reservations about the ability of the nation, and their own sanity, to withstand another eight year roller coaster ride on the Clinton-o-rama (although everyone secretly agrees it would be fun to have Bill Clinton around, just to see what happens).
In part because some knowledgeable people know, in their hearts, that Clinton is a prohibitive favorite, at least for nomination, they feel they can voice their innermost cautions without any fear of diminishing her chances of actually winning. Let’s have some competition, they say, so the primary race gets spiced up and Hillary gets honed to a fine edge. Let’s put her up against some impossible liberal decoy like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, or a party iconoclast like Jim Webb and expose all her deviations from leftist orthodoxy. The experience will move her to more liberal positions, it is argued, and tune her up for the fall campaign.
No, it won’t! There is no value to foisting candidates on voters who have no plausible chance of winning and whose only role is to damage the inevitable nominee, divide the party, demoralize the base, and eat up hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending that could more productively go to the fall campaign, including to House and Senate candidates. In their wildest dreams, the liberal critics would move Hillary further left and jeopardize her ability to compete for the crucial swing vote that likely will decide the election. At worst, such efforts will squander valuable money and provide her opponents with quotable denunciations of the Democratic nominee by her fellow Democrats.
I am not going waste my breath on those purists who assert that a Clinton who fails to embrace an agenda that is far beyond the palate of American voters is not worth electing. If you are of the opinion that nothing is at risk if Democrats lose the 2016 presidential election, well, you are simply not paying attention.
Everything is at risk, because the Republican Party is deep in the clutches of slightly deranged ideologues who want to can the last 75 years of American history: the social contract, the safety net, Social Security, pre-school education, Medicare, ACA, aid to higher education, gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, student lunches, voting rights — the whole shebang. And a Republican president would doubtless be able to pack the Supreme Court with enough youthful Scalias and Thomases to render any hope for equity a hazy pipe dream.
Now, I am not arguing that one cannot make a coherent argument against Clinton. Many of the standard criticisms are familiar because they have been leveled at other candidates who defied the critics and won the Big Show:
- at odds with the party base (Eisenhower),
- been around too long (Nixon),
- long in the tooth (Reagan),
- cashing in on a famous name (Kennedy, FDR, Bush II, not to mention Adams and Harrison).
Guilty on all counts!
But here’s the bottom line. To be a successful presidential candidate, you need a lot of what Hillary Clinton does have in buckets:
- fortitude ✔
- name recognition ✔
- a loyal base ✔
- mega fundraising ability ✔
- deep familiarity with both domestic and international policy issues ✔
- smart people around you (including you-know-who)
- the ability to take a serious punch, get up off the mat and get back into the fight ✔
We do not know if any of the other Democratic wannabes could stand up to a tenth of what’s been hurled at Hillary, and you know the Republicans and Fox News will waste little time digging up something to test their jaw. The two months between the convention and Election Day is a particularly bad time to find out they can’t take a punch.
One thing that is undeniable about Secretary Clinton: she is probably the most punched candidate in history. For nearly a generation, her opponents have poked and probed every aspect of her personal, professional and political lives. One is always hesitant to say so, but … if they can come up with something new at this point, it would be impressive.
Does she run the risk of over-confidence? Sure. Hopefully she has people on her staff who are up to challenging her (or the big guy) when they go veering off into some weird place they shouldn’t go. And hopefully they will listen to them. Hopefully, also, she will assemble an inner circle without the reliance on some of the arrogant heavies and sycophants who have cluttered up past Hillary campaigns and turned off potential supporters.
Some on the left, in particular, will never warm up to Clinton because, by their standards (which may not, incidentally, be the standards of the mass of voters needed to win the election) she isn’t hostile enough to Wall Street, she’s made too much money, or she voted for the Iraq war (apology apparently never accepted, although it’s curious how forgiving Democrats were of people like George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or Jim Wright and Robert Byrd who voted against the Civil Rights Act).
Can one construct an anti-Hillary message; sure, many have and it will become a full time sport of the nay-sayers. My guess is the critiques will have little impact. Even Republican congressional panels have admitted nothing Clinton culpable happened in Benghazi; the revelations about personal emails and private servers had no impact on her approval numbers; and she can easily launch a well-timed broadside to quiet most policy critics with a few chosen words like, “any Wall Street fat cat who tries to repeat what happened in 2008 will find themselves in prison during a Clinton Presidency.” The base will cheer, Walls Street fat cats will yawn, and the rationale for an alternative candidate will evaporate.
Purity is all very well and good for those who launch their missives from the security of editorial offices, tenured chairs or by pressing a “send” button. Governing, making tough decisions that are subjected to immediate scrutiny from critics and foes, assembling coalitions to pass the achievable and plan for the next initiatives, withstanding years of brutal assault and still maintaining broad respect and support: those are a bit tougher commodities to come by.
Americans have to stop voting for people for high office because they like the way a candidate delivers a speech or embraces a raft of gauzy platitudes. Those base-satisfying skills frequently have nothing to do with being a successful president (or legislator, for that matter). Let’s agree that all of the potential Democratic candidates are going to agree on 90% of the major policy issues and come close to agreement on the remaining 10%. Let’s see whether we can ignore all the chaff, chum and sparkly lights thrown up to distract us and instead focus on the issue at hand. I wouldn’t worry about the campaign season becoming too dull; Republicans seem intent on putting together a very entertaining three ring circus. Let’s pick the ringmaster and get on with the show.