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Hillary Clinton has been coroneted as the presumptive next President of the United States – by the celebrity mongers, by the chic Hollywood set, by the media, by the pundits, by the big donors, by Congressional Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer and by the Las Vegas odds-makers. The crystallization of a consensus three years before the event is as intriguing as the questions about what sort of president she would make. There is an obvious story line to the phenomenon that provides a sort of tabloid summary. First woman to reach the threshold of the White House, wronged wife of a legendary if flawed Chief Executive, tough professional who has broken through the stereotypical glass ceiling, high flying Secretary of State, top-notch brain, etc. That provides more than enough material for the mythic image that today is a prerequisite for being taken seriously as a presidential aspirant. The modern day equivalent of garnering the status of “presidential timber.”
Before buying tickets for the inaugural ball, we should cast a skeptical eye at the prophecy and what its realization portends. For liberals especially, there is the risk of being lured into yet another relationship that leads to disillusionment and betrayal. First, the issue of electability. The popular impression that Hillary is a shoo-in for the nomination and a heavy favorite to snare the gold ring is made of floss. This is the same woman who blew a sure win in 2008 despite huge advantages in money, visibility, organization and widespread public sympathy. The man who beat her out looks in retrospect like anything but the irresistible charismatic figure of legend. Barack Obama, in fact, owed his eventual victory in the general election to Sarah Palin and the financial meltdown. As of now, Hillary still has high negatives in the polls and slipping favorables. The mock contests against possible Republican rivals are pretty meaningless given their relative obscurity and the election’s being three years down the road.
Her high recognition factor, and passionate core of supporters, boosts her for now. A long stint in the limelight could also be a liability, though. At a time of widespread disaffection with the country’s political elites, she may be past her prime “elect by” date. Fresh ideas and a beacon of optimism have never been her strong suit. Just what Hillary stands for other than herself will be even more obscure in 2016 than it is today.
Then there is the Bill factor. He made her presidential aspirations possible in a number of senses. Her First Lady status endowed her with a measure of credibility as a national political personality. That allowed Hillary to win the New York Senatorial seat. Clinton money and network of contacts were placed at her disposal. Too, there was the wave of sympathy (empathy on the part of many women) because of her public humiliation. Her toughing it out has won generally positive reviews. From another perspective, it was less a sign of strong character than a cold blooded calculation of personal advantage. One might think that a self respecting professional woman would dump the guy who had so mistreated her. To do so, however, would have deprived her of the assets – tangible and intangible – that brought her ambitions into the realm of the possible. Without those assets, a run for the presidency would have been inconceivable. Some people realize that.
What of her credentials? They actually are quite thin – if scrutinized honestly. Hillary’s one major engagement as First Lady was the ill-starred attempt at devising a health care plan. The effort was an abject failure. Its conception behind closed doors made it suspect from the outset, its unveiling was politically maladroit and the plan itself was so complicated as to put it in contention with Barack Obama’s baroque creation for the Rube Goldberg prize. There was little else – a reality that forced her to concoct the tale of running across the Tuzla airport tarmac under sniper fire.1 In the Senate, she did not distinguish herself by initiation of progressive legislation. Nor did she place herself in the forefront of Democratic critics of the retrograde Bush policies at home and wild adventures abroad. Hillary backed the Iraq fling without qualification. Indeed, by her own admission, she voted in favor of the enabling resolution without ever reading the National Intelligence Report on Iraq that presented many caveats about the White House’s case for war. Not an example of “smart power” in either sense.2
As for her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary’s most remarkable accomplishment has been the fawning attention that she has been given by the press. She was covered as a celebrity rather than as a stateswoman with heavy responsibilities. That continues in the spate of laudatory retrospectives. The image of the undaunted lady representative of American power and prestige going toe-to-toe with the world’s movers and shakers is what has been etched on the public consciousness. Yet, the record is devoid of diplomatic achievement. She was the co-author and main executor of the Obama administration’s foreign policies that have trailed behind them a string of failures while leaving the United States strategically at sea in a world that has ceased to conform to our wants and expectations. American influence is at an all-time low. That may be due, at the root of things, to historic changes in the structure of world politics. But the inability to recognize them and to make the appropriate adaptations should be placed at the doorstep of Hillary et al.
Judging Hillary on foreign policy, therefore, is relatively simple. If you are satisfied with what has been done over the past five years, then you will welcome more of the same. If not, you should look elsewhere. More of the same means, inter alia: an unbending confrontational stance toward Iran; giving the Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu a free hand to bury any prospect for a settlement of the Palestinian issue; an on-going commitment to Afghanistan that foresees the presence of 15,000 troops in the country indefinitely and an open-ended fight against all elements there hostile to the United States; prevaricating as to what the United States’ attitude should be toward Mr. Maliki’s Iran friendly regime in Iraq, toward the civil war in Syria, toward the Egyptian military coup, and toward our Gulf allies’ crackdown on all forms of opposition; irresolution as to where our dedication to promoting democracy figures in the disjointed ad hoc responses to the above; diplomacy by sloganeering: “leading from behind,” “pivoting to China;” an unrelenting “war on terror” that involves the presence of American Special Forces across the Islamic world and beyond at considerable political cost; and massive spying on friends and allies world-wide at even greater political cost. Continuity means a President who sits in the Oval Office checking off the names on a list for assassination by drone; who notes with equanimity that “I have become good at killing people.”
That unqualified “war on terror” also entails comprehensive surveillance of the electronic communications and transactions of Americans at home by a juggernaut of intelligence agencies. This last forms part of an unsettling program that has degraded constitutionally grounded civil liberties, e.g. the government’s declaration of a right to seize and hold indefinitely American citizens without judicial authority or disclosure. The jettisoning of habeas corpus. Hillary Clinton has not offered a word of serious criticism of these activities or recommendations for reining them in.
More of the same foreign policy also means undermining elected governments throughout Latin American who are committed to social reform. It means a futile, corrupting “war on drugs” that blames others for America’s social ills. It means a diplomatic style high on hectoring and lecturing and low on building multilateral mechanism for cooperation. It means presuming to dictate the affairs of the world at a moment in time when that pretension is out of step with history.
The Domestic Front
What of social and economic issues on the domestic agenda? Hillary has been silent since 2009 but Bill has been vocal. There is no evidence that they differ at all on these matters – as witness her conduct in the Senate and her performance on the campaign trail in 2008. Bill Clinton’s presidency was responsible for the drastic deregulation of the financial world that led directly to the great crash. It also has led to the greatest concentration of wealth and financial power in the hands of a few since the pre-income tax 1890s. Both Clintons have fully backed the Obama administration’s Wall Street friendly approach to the financial crisis. They are intimates of the very same people (Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Hank Greenberg, et al) who brought us to ruin and who have shaped the Obama policies. They buzz around on the private jets of hedge fund sycophants.
We should recall that Bill and Hillary have been apostles of the globalization creed. They have been true believers in the dogma that unleashing the powers of the free market worldwide will usher in an age of unprecedented prosperity, opportunity, progress and peace. This chimera of the market fundamentalists and Thomas Friedman wet dreams is now exposed as a utopia only for the financial operators and the most ruthless entrepreneurs. It is quite the opposite for wage-earners in the United States who have been hit by a combination of unbridled competition from low wage countries, systematic off-shoring and outsourcing of jobs, and the failure of Washington to take mitigating and compensatory measures at home.
As to the cutting issues of budgets and deficits, the Clinton’s are charter members of the deficit hawk contingent within the Democratic Party. They promote the Simpson-Bowles assault on Social Security and Medicare. Bowles was Clinton’s Chief of Staff. Bill’s stirring speech to the 2012 Democratic convention included a plea to act on the Bowles-Simpson recommendations – something forgotten in the praise heaped on the address. The only issues where Hillary positions herself firmly on the progressive side of the divide are abortion rights, gay marriage, and a few other family friendly measures – as is nearly every other Democrat. Doing something about Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, the free fall in working class wages and benefits does not figure on that short list of family friendly measures. Nor does gun control.
So, is you liked Barack Obama’s “moderate Republican” philosophy and agenda, Hillary is the ticket.
The Establishment Candidate
The rush to judgment in pronouncing Hillary Clinton the presumptive next occupant of the White House raises the suspicion that she is the de facto Establishment candidate of choice. The New York Times has assigned a reporter to cover the Clintons full-time (is a Kardashian style reality show next?) This ensures that Hillary’s name will stay in the limelight between now and the start of the primary season. Interestingly, there are even some encouraging noises from the business community, the more reasonable members of which know from their long-time association with the Clintons that there is nothing to fear. Moreover, the dalliance with the Tea Party has spawned a monster they cannot control.
Hillary’s hardline foreign policy views along with unstinting support of both the Pentagon and the intelligence community has assured those pillars of the Establishment that they, too, will have a friend in the White House. With that line-up of support, and today’s political constellation of political forces, she has no reason to cultivate the traditional constituencies of teachers, civilian servants, and trade unionists who have no other place to go. Barack Obama has demonstrated how easy it is to marginalize them in the pursuit of bigger game with deeper pockets.
Alternatives? Certainly not Joe Biden who offers nothing different. Progressives will have to bestir themselves from their complacency and wishful thinking if they are to restore themselves as a force in national politics. Why is there not a movement to promote the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts and the staunchest advocate of serious financial reform in her capacity as Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). She had been a Professor at the Harvard Law School. Warren is a person who stands out in the Washington environment for her conviction, her guts and her brains. The first two have been sorely lacking among self styled progressive Democrats. That is what attracts people; that is what scares other people – including Hillary Clinton. Warren is becoming the repository of honest liberals’ beliefs and hopes that the Democratic Party can free itself from the fatal embrace of moneyed interests. She herself is a proven money raiser – indeed, the only Democrat who can do so without compromising herself.
Of course, a Warren candidacy would be the longest of long shots.
Even were it to fail, though, the campaign itself would influence our public life by sharpening issues and offering a superior narrative for Democrats. And the surprising truth is that on the full span of national issues, Warren’s positions are closer to the locus of sentiment among Democrats (and perhaps the country) than are Hillary’s. Then, there is the chance that she may just decide to run out of duty and dedication – another alienating trait among the party establishment.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
1. Hillary promoted this fabricated story on the campaign trail in March 2008. It was a staple line in her stump speeches. When confronted with the contradictory testimony of reporters who were with her in Tuzla, she first claimed poetic license and then admonished her critics “to lighten up.”
2. “Smart Power,” a term coined by Professor Joseph Nye at Harvard that was in vogue at the time, was used by Hillary at her confirmation hearings and a number of times thereafter. Her neglect of the documentary basis for the Iraq invasion was in line with the behavior of most of her Senatorial colleagues. Hillary’s speech on the Senate floor in favor of the resolution was given on October 1, 2002. 23 Senators voted against it.