The Only Way to Fight the Clintons
Three weeks before the Ohio primary Blanche McKinney, an assistant manager at Stark Metro Housing and a member of CWA Local 4302 in Canton, told me, "Do we have the time to get someone in there who’s inexperienced? No. It’s got to be someone who on day one can immediately begin solving problems, because we don’t have the time." Her union brothers in the group I was talking to were still undecided at that point, but McKinney was for Hillary. The only thing she wasn’t sure she liked about the candidate was her health care plan: "a lot of Canadians don’t like their program." She seemed relieved when I assured her Hillary was not promoting a Canadian-style single-payer system.
McKinney is solidly in Hillary’s most solid base: 59, white, a woman, making less than =$50,000, rural. Although she works in Canton’s public housing, she and her husband are also small farmers. He doesn’t buy anything unless the label says "Made in America". She says she "never seriously thought this was a problem" but asks her union brothers anyway about Barack Obama’s name and the "Muslim connection back then in Indonesia": "You say that doesn’t bother you even a little?" The four men, three white and one black, said they didn’t think so. Dustin Robinett, white, 33, an AT&T repairman, explained what he saw as Obama’s slim "connection to the Muslim nation" (his father’s childhood religion, his step-father’s religion) before going into an extended consideration of multiculturalism, the melting pot, global experience, religion and politics, the habits of men: "we’re all afraid of things that are different."
"In God we trust", said Bob Ramsey wryly, a long-hair AT&T inspector in a camo baseball cap, 41, white.
These were the first people I talked to during a week in Ohio before the primary, so it wasn’t until later that I noticed there was something else about McKinney that seemed common among Clinton’s most passionate supporters. Most really believed Hillary herself would begin to solve problems immediately upon taking residence at Pennsylvania Avenue. For all the talk after her victory of Hillary as "a fighter" and Ohioans as "fighters" and all of that being a perfect match — the boxing gloves she held up at events, the endorsement from world middleweight champion and Youngstown native Kelly ("The Ghost") Pavlik — what seemed truer was that Hillary’s solid rank and file aren’t fighters at all, or haven’t been for a long time. The late Youtube entry into the campaign, a sequence of visuals from Clinton’s TV commercials and some still photos backed by John Stewart’s "Survivors," made the point precisely. Clinton Country doesn’t fight; it survives, and hopes for deliverance.
Bill and Hillary themselves are matchless fighters, and the singular genius of their first eight-year reign was to enlist their supporters as partisan spectators to their fights: against Gennifer Flowers, against Pentagon brass who forced them into "Don’t ask, don’t tell", against "Harry and Sally", against Newt Gingrich, against the undeserving poor, against gay-baiters who forced them into the Defense of Marriage Act, against Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, against Ken Starr and "the vast right-wing conspiracy." Meanwhile, the spectators themselves became punching bags, but so thoroughly had they been corralled into the Clintons’ bleachers that it was as if they could do nothing but take it, perhaps raising a squeak of protest briefly, before turning back to the main event, cheering on their friends, oppressors, friends, the Clintons.
After Hillary won Ohio, having beaten up Obama on NAFTA, a real estate deal and the danger an Obama presidency would pose to sleeping children, the two obvious questions were how did she manage to turn NAFTA into a negative for him, and why didn’t he fight back quicker, harder, more effectively? The same might be asked of Ohio itself, and everything Ohio represents, across the long decline of wages and jobs and manufacturing to the present state of social insecurity for which "NAFTA" has become shorthand. For the plain fact is that until the anarchists rose up in Seattle, along with better behaved opponents of neoliberal globalization, shutting down the WTO meeting in the twilight of the Clinton years, no one fought at all except the right.
It is almost hard to believe now that the reason health insurance was on the Clintons’ first agenda at all, back in 1992, was because there was a mini movement for single-payer in the country. Labor unions, citizens groups, doctors’ and nurses’ groups, some business leaders, had all been agitating, making it an election issue in other races, writing letters, organizing meetings, protests, media attention. Bill Clinton rode that wave and immediately after being elected, while in the transition, he asked his allies to shut up; Wall Street was already breathing down his neck, the right was bringing heat, trust him and he would, as promised, "put people first" when it came to health care. A protest caravan that had been planned was canceled. One of the biggest players in the coalition, the unions, so flattered to have a president who actually spoke to them, were eager to comply. Bill gave the job of health care reform to Hillary, who studiously interviewed all the players, at one point asking Dr. David Himmelstein, a major exponent of a Canadian-style system "where’s the power?" behind such a reform. "Seventy-five percent of the American people," he answered, to which she replied, "Tell me something interesting."
The people never have been interesting to the Clintons, not in organized, confident form. They have been interesting as election props and poll numbers, and interesting as victims, atomized, whose pain could be felt, causes championed, and misery exploited. They are interesting to Bill on rope lines, as exemplars of popular adulation and individuals to be charmed or lectured. Hillary used to hate the rope lines, hate being touched, and in the 1992 campaign she used to make sure that big men were around her to keep the plebs at bay. That changed as her ambition grew and she discovered Purell instant hand santizer. Having purelled universal health care as a live issue for a generation, she’s back at it, just where she wants to be, as an answer to a murmured prayer, among a populace mobilized for nothing but elections.
Bill Clinton bribed and buttered up every member of Congress he could to pass NAFTA in 1993. The unions made speeches and phone calls and rallied here and there, but it wasn’t much of a fight. And it wasn’t the only issue that labor failed to make into an energetic public case. Even as unions were being crushed by employer intimidation during representation campaigns, they didn’t fight en masse for labor law reform while Clinton had a Democratic Congress, and they didn’t fight, after the long night of Reaganism, for a seachange in government priorities, for an industrial policy, for reinvestment to end the bleeding of their jobs and their communities and the class. Organized labor vowed to throw out the bums who had passed NAFTA, but ended up backing most of them for re-election in 1994, and did nothing to organize globally with other losers in the aggressively pro-capital regimen of neoliberal capitalism. The Democrats lost Congress, which only made unions (if not their members) more loyal. Clinton lectured delegates to the AFL-CIO convention in 1995 about how he was right on NAFTA and right in his vision of retraining and lifetime learning and the high-tech tomorrow, and the union men and women stood, clapping and hollering their approval. They told their members he was all that stood between them and destruction in the form of Republicans, and mobilized voters for his re-election in 1996 and that of his v.p., Al Gore, in 2000. Now workers come to Hillary’s rallies and her "town halls" telling reporters of the multiple agonies of their towns and their counties and repeating the rumor judiciously planted by campaign supporters in the press and on the streets: "You know, privately she was against NAFTA from the beginning." Now she is the solution, the savior for everything that ails them.
Anyone who wants chapter and verse on how cynical the Clinton team was on the price of deindustrialization should read Louis Uchitelle’s book of a couple of years ago, The Disposable American. And for a refresher course in the realities of the "peace and prosperity" that the Clintons promise to bring back — and anyone who has trailed the campaigns in a primary state cannot miss that "the Clintons" are indeed running as a team promising to do just that — there is Robert Pollin’s devastating account of global austerity at the end of the ’90s, Contours of Descent. But the larger point is how they got away with it. The prison population and prison labor (engaged in everything from taking reservations to sewing jeans to building furniture and transmissions for pennies an hour) mushroomed under Clinton’s three-strikes-you’re-out and kindred crime policies, and organized labor didn’t fight. Prisons expanded, and organized labor didn’t fight. (To the extent that more cops and more prison guards and more construction crews were real or potential union members, this development was sometimes even welcomed.) Privatization moved apace here as in so many other sectors, and organized labor didn’t fight. The prisons filled with young black and Latino men, and black leadership didn’t fight, Latino leadership didn’t fight, the civil rights movements didn’t fight — not in any robust, sustained and visible fashion, just like the unions with job loss, NAFTA and the decline in real wages. Now one in less than 100 adult Americans is locked up. That was a blip in the news during the campaigns in Ohio and Texas. Hillary Clinton called for even more cops on the streets, more community policing and only lastly a review of sentencing.
I don’t know if Obama, then struggling to defend himself as someone who would not allow America’s sleeping children to be slaughtered by foreigners, said anything at all. But there was no popular outcry he might have ridden or been pressured by, no mass organized black or Latino outcry, just as there had been none during the Clinton reign. Critics say Obama is isolated because he’s maintained a careful distance from black leadership, and that is true, except that that leadership has allowed its children to be criminalized and locked up, and all the while cheered for Bill, rustled votes for Bill, just plain liked Bill, and in many cases signed on early to his wife’s campaign without making mass incarceration an issue. Prisons have been the only real growth industry in Ohio’s Mahoning County, home of Youngstown and its supposed population of fighters, and the county went 64 percent for Hillary on March 4.
Organized feminists didn’t fight when Clinton continued Reagan’s war on "welfare queens" in more polite language. They didn’t fight as women were made peon labor, displacing unionized public workers, or as they were made a captive labor force for multinationals like Tyson’s chicken. Or as they were threatened with eviction from public housing. Or as they were forced into more peon labor in exchange for that public housing. NARAL fought against the forced imposition of chemical contraception on poor women, but again on an issue that potently united the interests of organized labor, women, blacks, Latinos, the poor, there was no mass sustained, visible fight. ACORN launched a campaign to organize welfare workers, and pushed for them to get gloves while picking up garbage for a few dollars a day in public parks. There were protests here and there, just as there were strikes here and there, labor rallies here and there, marches of blacks and others angered by the criminal control system here and there during the 1990s. But mostly there was abject surrender.
Predatory lending increased, and there was no fight. Household indebtedness increased, and there was no fight. Deregulation marched on, leading the way for the current foreclosure crisis among other things, and there was no fight. Hillary Clinton’s closest foreign policy adviser now, Madeleine Albright, said the death of half a million children because of sanctions on Iraq was "worth it", and there was no fight. The drug war escalated on American city streets and in Colombia with the bribing and arming of government-linked paramilitaries, and there was no fight. Bill Clinton wrote anti-gay discrimination into law in the Defense of Marriage Act and there was no fight. While he had a Democratic Congress and squandered an opportunity for banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in civilian life, he won cheers from gays and their bloc vote at the ballot box for fighting for their equal opportunity to be paid killers and cannon fodder.
Talk about the "kitchen sink"! If Barack Obama wanted to throw it at the eight years of First Lady experience that Hillary Clinton has made central to her resume for "the job" she says she wants us to "hire" her for, there is plenty there. People on the left who say he won’t, he can’t because he’s just like her, a creature of capital and empire, may be right in the grand scheme, but they shouldn’t be smug, because there aren’t exactly models of successful radical or even liberal fights against the Clintons. There are barely models of noble but failed fights. And Hillary’s own revamped self-presentation as the populist fighter, sworn foe of big corporations, friend of the little people, ultimate underdog, makes clear that Obama’s ties to Wall Street should be no more an impediment than hers are in the game of political fisticuffs.
Already it looks like Obama’s advisers are getting it completely wrong, though, challenging her for her First Lady papers and her tax returns and, implicitly, the source of her and Bill’s immense wealth. Obama can no more beat the Clintons at this kind of game than the right could. Every small, personal complaint looks petty or desperate or sexist, and only allows Hillary to play the part she likes best, after mud slinger and policy wonk, which is survivor. She played that part in New Hampshire and in Ohio, and she’ll play it again any time she wants to put on the show that "for anyone who’s ever been counted out", for anyone who’s ever had to struggle against the odds, for anyone who’s ever been treated unfairly, she’s their gal. It’s as phony a show as can be imagined, but it’s the one the Clintons perfected against the right, and their hard core supporters are on autopilot now to respond to it. Likewise, Obama can’t beat the Clintons in pure bloviating wonkery. Some of his advisors are saying he should quit the big inspiring rallies and do small tedious meetings of the type that Hillary’s supporters walk out of, even as they’ll later pull the lever for her at the polls. It’s not her "plans" that draw voters; like Blanche McKinney, most people don’t even know what those plans involve even after reading them. It’s her aura of dogged competence, based on the entirely fraudulent story of "putting people first" and thus widening the circle of peace and prosperity during the Clinton years. It’s also her skin color, and if anyone doesn’t think Bill Clinton knew what he was doing in South Carolina, locking up the white racist vote for his wife, they should talk to some of her supporters in Ohio.
Obama can’t do anything about that last "asset" of Hillary Clinton, and maybe it is her ultimate chip, but it would make for a more interesting campaign going forward if he would challenge that First Lady experience by implicitly challenging the myths on which it stands, projecting an idea of the future unmoored from the Reagan-Clinton continuum, something Hillary is locked into. What drew so many people originally to Obama’s campaign was its call to "turn the page" on past Republican and Democratic politics alike, and its recognition that people are just fed up. But that call could never sustain itself purely on some attacks on lobbyists and the usual timid party nods toward health care, education and the environment. It was always going to need more meat on its bones.
In Ohio the working-class people I talked to who were leaning toward Obama or had decided to vote for him were those who had reviewed the past with workers competing to outproduce or outconcession each other, and who saw clearly the pattern of ratcheted down wages and conditions for all. They were people like IBEW Local 1985 president Jim Repace in North Canton, who remembered his own endless defenses to his members of Bill Clinton and the Democrats, even as those members grew increasingly skeptical, and who told me, "Enough is enough." Enough of capital unleashed, of bridges falling down, levees being breached, cities unable to rebuild from disaster, the economic base corroding in town after town, full-time workers losing their homes, severe poverty unabated even in supposed "boom" times, and government incompetent to do anything but lock people up. Bill Clinton now marches around lecturing workers on how their mortgages got transformed into stocks, making oodles of money for speculators, ending the story before it gets to the part about his own administration’s culpability. "Who deregulated the financial industry?" a worker at the GM Lordstown plant in Ohio said to me, knowing the answer to his own question but somehow hoping that Hillary would turn on that legacy of her own "experience" even as she’s now turned on NAFTA.
Obama has been foolish not to call for a moratorium on home foreclosures, and it would be hardly wild-eyed now to take up the AFL-CIO’s call for that and reregulation of the mortgage and credit markets. Or to talk about employment-led growth, instead of 90s-era growth based on low wages, mad consumption, household debt, deunionization and the temporary luck of the stock market. Or about immigration in light of decades’ long global economic policies that make it impossible for people to live in their own countries. The list goes on — even within the limits of mushy progressivism that is the outer limit of mainstream political discussion — for redefining security and insecurity distinct from the hair-raising style that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain are so comfortable with. (I should add that as he reassesses his campaign Obama should definitely sideline Austin Goolsbee, the economic advisor who gave him NAFTA-gate plus rotten advice on foreclosures.)
I used to think that calling into question the Clinton legacy by charting a break from Clintonism would be impossible for anyone running for the Democratic nomination. Maybe it still is. But now that it’s clear that the Clintons, who cannot win by the delegate math, are prepared to destroy the party in Denver by kicking the blacks (its most loyal base and the most loyal constituency of its greatest support engine, organized labor), the young, the new voters, the formerly disenchanted, there’s a new fight song, "Anything Goes". All the survivors might start calculating how to fight President McCain.
JOANN WYPIJEWSKI writes for CounterPunch and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org