In the years before he ran for President in 1968, Richard Nixon’s publicists promoted a New Nixon. It was the same old Tricky Dicky with the rough edges smoothed away.
The old Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy in 1960; then Pat Brown defeated him in 1962, when he ran for the Governorship of California. The hope after that was, as Nixon himself put it, that the press would no longer “have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon had always had trouble with the press.
But this was not to be. You just can’t keep a good scoundrel down.
The Vietnam War was a bipartisan concoction, from its inception to its ignominious end, but, before 1968, liberal Democrats – JFK and Lyndon Johnson, leading figures in their administrations, and Democratic Senators and Representatives — were the ones leading the way. Vietnam was not just an anti-Soviet and anti-Chinese proxy war; it was a liberal’s war.
Republicans were culpable too, and Nixon was hardly an exponent of peace. But neither he nor the party whose ticket he led had yet taken on the now familiar more-bellicose-than-thou persona of the post-Vietnam GOP.
The more unpopular the war became, the happier Republicans were that Lyndon Johnson, not one of their own, was taking the blame. Democrats were still widely considered the more warlike of the two parties. How could they not be – having brought the United States into the First and Second World Wars and into Korea? Vietnam was their thing.
But then, as now, the Democratic Party was where the liberals were, most of them anyway; and so, the part of the anti-war movement that was electorally inclined, the less radical part, gravitated into their ranks, effectively dividing the party into pro- and anti-war camps.
There were Republican liberals too back then, but a cultural divide already separated the anti-war movement from the GOP; and, with only a few exceptions, Republican liberals and moderates were no more peace-friendly than LBJ. The prospect of turning the GOP into an anti-war party never occurred
As the 1968 election approached, Nixon said that he had a secret plan for ending the war. He was lying, of course; but, at the time, his claim was not implausible; hadn’t Eisenhower said much the same about Korea, and he was telling the truth.
There were even a few anti-war liberals who voted for Nixon to punish the Democrats, and many more who considered doing so.
The Democrats who led the way in Vietnam, LBJ and the cohort he inherited from Kennedy, were decent enough on domestic policy. By today’s standards, they were outstanding.
Nixon wasn’t bad either. Unlike today’s Republicans and Democrats, but like Eisenhower, he had no interest in dismantling New Deal and Fair Deal advances.
And for getting affirmative action going, for launching various “black capitalism” programs, for floating the prospect of a negative income tax and genuine national health insurance, for breathing life into the environmental movement, for pumping money into scientific research and infrastructure development, and much else, his presidency puts Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s to shame.
Between Nixon and what we can expect from Bill Clinton’s even more retrograde wife, there is no comparison at all.
To get his presidential aspirations back on track, there was therefore no need for him to take a liberal or “populist” turn. This was not what the New Nixon was about.
It was about how he presented himself, his public persona. His publicists understood that that had to be changed – fast.
But, you cannot change a public persona without bringing politics in; not if you are running for President. There must be at least the appearance of substantive change.
And so what made the New Nixon new was his adoption of a more statesmanlike veneer.
The New Nixon was, or was made to seem, more thoughtful than the Old. His anti-Communism was toned down a notch — to appear less paranoid and crass. And, under Henry Kissinger’s tutelage, he learned how to present himself before the world as a geopolitical strategist of uncommon insight.
Of the Old Nixon, people would say: “would you buy a used car from that man?” The New Nixon was less flagrantly sleazy.
The mean-spirited, internally tormented figure voters rejected twice was made over to seem avuncular and wise, an Eisenhower in the rough.
As it turned out, the makeover was not entirely smoke and mirrors. Nixon’s personality was what his detractors knew it to be; there was no changing that. But there was some reality behind the statesman-like veneer that his handlers had him project.
No one would have expected the Old Nixon to lead the opening towards China or to advance détente with the USSR; no one thought he had it in him.
Once in office, it became clear that the man was not as void of vision or as incapable of deep thinking as everyone had believed.
It also became clear that there was more villainy in him than even his most ardent detractors had imagined.
* * *
With her campaign for the presidency in 2016 now officially underway, we are witnessing the rollout of a New Hillary.
The parallels with Nixon’s makeover are striking.
Clinton’s presidential plans had been thwarted by a more glamorous opponent, just as Nixon’s had been; and she too has always had trouble with the press.
And the New Hillary, like the New Nixon, will be very much like the Old.
There are other uncanny parallels: Barack Obama, the rival who did the Old Hillary in, was, at the time, heralded as the next JFK, the man who defeated Nixon forty-eight years before. Even Caroline Kennedy was on board with that.
For a moment too, there was hope, as they vacated the White House, that, in the new century, we wouldn’t have Clintons to kick around anymore.
Of course, there was never any chance of that – not with Bill being, as the quip went, the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral; and not with Hillary being parachuted into New York state to be its Senator.
That arrangement also conjures up memories of the sixties – of Jack’s brother Bobby, RFK. When Johnson wanted him out of Washington, he too was parachuted into New York to become its Senator.
Massachusetts would have been more appropriate, but brother Teddy was already a Massachusetts Senator, and two Kennedys in the Senate from the same state would be unseemly.
More important to RFK and his minions, adding on to the Kennedy power base in Massachusetts would have been a waste or time and effort. New York was a different story.
Hillary was even less a New Yorker than Kennedy was. She was an Illinois girl, born and bred, who went to college and Law School in New England and then spent her adult life in Arkansas and Washington DC. New York City was just a great place to visit; the rest of the state might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
This is not the only reason why the parallel with RFK is not exact.
Robert Kennedy had at least been his brother’s Attorney General, and also his closest advisor and most trusted friend. He knew about, and participated in, JFK’s intrigues and assignations; he knew about his brother’s poor health. He was the keeper of the family’s skeletons.
While his brother was alive, the whole world knew that when RFK spoke, he was speaking for the President. He was the Kennedy administration’s unchallenged and unchallengeable consigliere. When need be, he was also the enforcer of his brother’s will.
And he was his brother’s heir apparent. As such, RFK was a power to be reckoned with – not just for his hold over the Democratic Party but, more importantly, over the popular imagination.
With Hillary, there was nothing like that. She did play a role in her husband’s administration – a comparatively minor and not very successful one. It was she, for example, who, more than anyone, set the cause of health care reform back a generation.
Though hardly a Queen of Camelot, her role was more or less like Jackie’s. She and her husband had arrived at a modus vivendi — based on necessity, not trust.
When she spoke, it was with her own voice, not his; and she would be the last, not the first, to know about his intrigues and assignations.
Hillary’s only qualification for the office she sought in New York was that she had been a First Lady, an official wife.
Because she was the wife of a philandering husband, she sometimes did get her way. Aggrieved wives often do, especially when their husbands are in the national spotlight and hanging on by the skins of their teeth. The last thing Bill needed was political embarrassment on Hillary’s account.
But she was never the voice of the Clinton administration, and she was never her husband’s administration’s consigliere.
By the time Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the hopes of a generation were riding on hiss shoulders. No hopes ride on Hillary’s; none ever have and none ever will.
Therefore, it wasn’t just within “the great right-wing conspiracy” Hillary spoke of that, for all the wrong reasons, people looked forward to seeing the back of her. There were many who shared this hope – for reasons that are eminently sound.
But, as it had been with Nixon, those who hoped hoped in vain. She never really retired from public view.
Her operatives think that a makeover now will get her back on track for winning the office she believes her due.
One wonders how much the Nixon precedent figures in their thinking. It is unclear what, if anything, his makeover had to do with it, but a made over Nixon did finally gain the office that he too believed his due.
For this, the country paid dearly; and Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile and much of the rest of the world suffered egregiously.
We can expect outcomes similarly horrendous, if and when the New Hillary calls the shots. This is yet another parallel waiting to happen.
* * *
Old Hillary cannot be made over in quite the way that Old Nixon was. After her tenure as Secretary of State, promoting her diplomatic prowess is out of the question.
Future historians will fault her handling of America’s affairs almost everywhere the empire’s talons reached – not just in the Muslim world. But her clueless fumbling during the Arab Spring is sure to receive special attention.
On this, her Republican detractors are on to something.
But if the past is any guide, to drive the point home, they will focus only on her role in Libya in 2011 and in the months that followed.
She does indeed have much to answer for about that. So do Obama and his other humanitarian interveners. They brought Libya to ruin. The consequences of their clueless bumbling are still unfolding.
Thanks to Secretary Clinton and her posse, Libya became a failed state. In the Mediterranean today, off the Libyan coast, refugees and asylum seekers are drowning because of what Clinton and the people around her helped bring about.
But the Republican way is to tell only part of the story, and to tell it in ways that mainly reflect their own disingenuousness. Where the Clintons are concerned, this is how it has been since Day One.
Therefore expect Republicans to focus narrowly, if not exclusively, on the deaths of American diplomats (or whatever they were) in the consulate in Benghazi.
This was indeed a disaster, but their concerns are disingenuous because they know, as well as anyone, that the Benghazi consulate was, as the Iranians would say, “a nest of spies” that neither Clinton nor anyone else in the Obama administration can talk about honestly.
It was the same with the famous “missile gap” that JFK would bring up every chance he got when he ran against Nixon. There was no such thing, and Kennedy knew it. He also knew that Nixon couldn’t say this without compromising what he – and his boss, President Eisenhower — took to be the national interest.
This time, the shoe will be on the other party’s foot.
Still, the fact remains: Clinton was in way over her head when the Arab Spring erupted, and almost everything she did was wrong. If only for that, she should never be allowed anywhere near the corridors of power again.
Just as surely as Republicans will make the attack on the Benghazi consulate the issue, Democrats will do their best to make Clinton’s failures at the State Department a non-issue.
They will probably succeed too – well enough to fool most liberals.
But, to that end, the less they say about her diplomacy, the better for them. This is why Clinton’s makeover, unlike Nixon’s, will have little, if anything, to do with foreign affairs.
It will be about her likeability instead.
The Old Hillary was imperious; she exuded a sense of entitlement. The New Hillary is downright personable.
When New Hillary campaigns, instead of just flying in and out of major venues for mega-rallies or hobnobs with plutocrats, she will now sometimes also chat one-on-one with (carefully selected) “ordinary” people. She will brandish the common touch.
She will also take what media pundits call a “populist” line, doing her best to appeal to voters who would prefer Elizabeth Warren – or anybody to Hillary’s left.
These changes run together – “populist,” “popular.” Some well-remunerated marketing genius in Hillary’s employ must think that the two are one and the same, or that the target audience can be duped into thinking that they are.
It will be a hard sell, but the sales campaign will probably succeed with the target audience. Everybody knows that what candidates say bears almost no relation to what they will do – think, for example, of Obama’s “I will close Guantanamo” — but the will to believe becomes indomitable around election time.
Who is in the audience that Hillary’s hucksters are targeting? Apparently, it is social liberals – people who would vote for her, or any Democrat, over any imaginable Republican anyway, but who may, from sheer disgust or learned indifference, not vote at all.
In other words, they are preaching to the choir. This might seem a waste of time and effort; it usually is. But with a Hillary Clinton presidency looming, the choir cannot be counted on to show up at the church. They must be made to want to sing.
Hillary’s hucksters understand this; they know that their first order of business is to remind the Democratic “base,” the social liberal part of it, what makes Democrats worth supporting.
There are too few Democrats on Hillary’s right on economic policy issues to worry about, in any case; and her team is evidently counting on Republicans scaring off most “swing voters.” This happened in 2012, and it is likely to happen again in 2016.
And so the idea is to emphasize Hillary’s social liberalism – in the hope of getting potential voters enthused.
Her handlers have an even more compelling reason too: there is no other way to provide her with a more leftish patina that would not upset the donor class.
* * *
As a rule, advertisers like to appeal to the kinds of consumers known in the days when Nixon was starting his makeover, and when Hillary was still a Goldwater Girl, as “the Pepsi Generation,”
The Pepsi Generation was “with it,” whatever “it” was; and they felt good about themselves and about their world. Optimism was in the air they breathed.
The name lingers – it was a triumph of advertising genius – and the idea behind it continues to guide marketing campaigns.
But, in an age of increasing social insecurity, what works for selling soft drinks is no longer directly transferable to advertising campaigns aimed at selling candidates to voters.
Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” was its last hurrah.
Since then, a succession of Reaganite (neoliberal, aggressively imperialist) Presidents – Reagan himself, the two Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – have superintended such a profound diminution in voters’ expectations that it is no longer possible be with it and perky, or even mildly optimistic, in political contexts.
The one brief exception was America’s – and the world’s – brief Obamamania phase. In retrospect, the predictable shattering of the illusions that sprouted up around Obama’s candidacy in 2008 only accelerated the long term, increasingly pessimistic trend.
But even if optimism no longer sells candidates, being with it still counts for something – or so Hillary’s hucksters believe.
If their campaign launch video — featuring single moms, a multi-racial family and a gay couple about to be married — is any indication, Hillary’s minions seem to have decided to cede the religious Right to Ted Cruz or whichever wingnut strikes the fancy of America’s most benighted, and to appeal instead to voters who are already on board, but who may not turn out for Hillary even so.
She is plainly not a candidate to get the juices flowing the way Obama did once upon a time; she is way too uncool.
But social liberalism is cool – cool enough, Team Hillary hopes, to bring the faithful out on Election Day.
In the Golden Age of the Pepsi Generation, Democrats aspiring to become their party’s nominee would be courting labor leaders and appealing to rank-and-file workers.
But Hillary and the people around her see no percentage in that; not when the union movement is a pale shadow of its former self, a casualty of the neoliberal age; and not when the leaders of what is left of it are as eager as their predecessors were to do Democrats yeoman service.
In the old days, there was at least a quid pro quo. Democrats did the labor movement favors too.
When Obama ran the first time, this tradition had not yet entirely died out. Candidate Obama was not about to come out against Taft Hartley, but he did endorse the Employee Free Choice Act. Had it been enacted, union organizing would have become easier. Obama said that he would make it a priority.
Needless to say, no one has heard anything from him about it since.
And now, true to form, most labor leaders are falling into place — behind Hillary. Her people see no need to chat them up; they have — or think they have — nowhere else to go.
Count on them instead to give their all while expecting nothing in return — beyond keeping the Republicans at bay. They no longer even ask.
* * *
Is pandering to later-day Pepsi Generation types, while ignoring workers and other traditional Democratic constituencies, a good strategy?
Not as a rule, especially in general elections. But, this time, it hardly matters because it is as plain as can be that the Republican candidate in 2016 will be whacky enough to scare off all but the most reactionary voters. The Democrat, whoever she is, will win no matter what strategy she deploys.
Meanwhile, the Clinton makeover strategy is a good one insofar as its point is to ward off competitors in Democratic primaries and caucuses.
Were any candidate to advance even modestly “populist” economic proposals in a way that seems that they mean it, the full weight of the donor class would come down upon them. This is not something Hillary would do in any case; it goes against her nature.
Therefore the only thing she can do, when she and her advisors find it expedient to take a more liberal or populist turn, is display support for costless (to capitalists) social issues. When, like gay marriage, those issues enjoy widespread support in nearly all sectors of the population outside the religious Right, proclaiming support is a no-brainer.
No surprise, then, that the Clinton campaign led with this gambit. Her handlers have positioned her well.
Even so, a real populist could defeat Hillary-style “populism,” provided word gets out to voters in the early caucus and primary states in time to build what the first President Bush called “the big Mo.” Even in today’s America, this could happen without billionaire backing.
This is why I am inclined to support the candidacy of Jim Webb.
If he plays his cards right, later-day Pepsi Generation types could become the ones with nowhere else to go, while the kinds of voters who made the New and Fair Deals possible, and who propelled the Great Society forward, putting the Democratic party on the side of racial and economic justice, could come back into the fold – not grudgingly, but enthusiastically.
Webb could turn the New Nixon’s Southern Strategy around, bringing not just “white ethnics” but also white Southerners back onto the right side of a class war that never ended – though it looked like it had because, in recent decades, one side, the wrong one, has been consistently getting its way.
Jimmy Carter, the best and the most underrated American President in a very long time, kept the Southern Strategy more or less at bay through the latter half of the seventies. He did it just by being a Southerner and being there.
But Carter ceded too much power to Cold War liberals like Zbigniew Brzezinski and to economists intent on reviving old nostrums that the New Deal once seemed to have laid to rest.
He even let Henry Kissinger talk him into letting the Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment, unleashing a chain of events that has diminished his reputation to this day.
Had Carter made peace with the Iranian Revolution, the United States and the world might have been spared Ronald Reagan; and we might not now, three and a half decades later, be facing the prospect of a war with Iran.
Carter’s instincts were decent, except when it came to deciding whose advice to trust. This cost him dearly. And, by diminishing his power, it rendered him all but useless for holding back the Republican tide in the South.
Bill Clinton, for all his efforts to come on as a Bubba to the good old boys while remaining presentable to donors in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, never made a dent in what the New Nixon got going. It wasn’t just the good old boys who saw through him, working people did too.
Hillary was not the only albatross around his neck. There was also his unctuous and transparent phoniness. It is as if he took the Eddie Haskell character on “Leave It to Beaver” for a role model.
He did indeed have Southern roots, but his heart was where the money was, and where the sleaze balls who had it congregated.
In the run up to the 2008 election, John Edwards seemed just the one to turn the Southern Strategy around — until the Obama steamroller and his own horn dog disposition did him in. Like Carter, Edwards was a bona fide Southern liberal, not a poseur like Hillary’s better half.
His strategy was to outflank Hillary from the left. Her other rivals, Joe Biden excepted, had the same idea. But Edwards could appeal to white Southerners, as they could not. In 2008, he might even have been able to do what Al Gore, eight years earlier, could not: pry away a few Southern states, along with their Electoral College votes, from the solidly Republican South.
But even had he turned out to be more like he (briefly) seemed to be, his candidacy would have been more like Elizabeth Warren’s might be, were she to run, than like Jim Webb’s.
Like Warren and Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, Edwards was a zero on foreign policy and on military affairs – the areas where, even with money talking as loudly as it does, Presidents can actually make a difference.
These are Webb’s strongpoints. He has consistently opposed America’s Middle Eastern wars. And, knowing what war is about, he is no fan of gunboat diplomacy or military brinksmanship. He despises chicken hawks and the wars they foist on the people he cares about. In these respects, he is the true anti-Clinton.
* * *
The main thing, though, is that, contrary to what the hucksters selling Hillary seem to believe, the stars are now lining up right for moving social liberal considerations off dead-center and bringing working class issues back in.
This is because even the voters Team Hillary is targeting, functional equivalents of yesterday’s Pepsi Generation, are discovering that working class issues are their issues too.
This is happening all over the developed world.
It is more visible overseas than it is here because it is easier to gain a purchase on what voters are thinking in democracies that are less undemocratic than ours. The UK is a case in point.
There, as almost everywhere else, big money is much less a factor in determining electoral outcomes than it is in the United States, and the political culture is not quite as bent out of shape by the prevailing party system.
For this reason, Team Hillary would be well advised to take a close look at next month’s parliamentary elections.
Less than eight months ago, the Scottish National Party (SNP) suffered a significant defeat in a referendum on Scottish independence, its signature issue. Now, mainly at Labor’s expense, it is poised to become the third largest party in the British parliament.
Because neither the Conservatives nor Labor are likely to win a majority of seats in their own right, the SNP will wield tremendous influence in the next Parliament; it may even enter the government as Labor’s junior partner.
The reason for its sudden change of fortune is plain: voters are fed up with neoliberal austerity politics; and voting for the SNP is the best way to make this sentiment known.
The SNP is the most left leaning, most Social Democratic, of any of the larger political parties in Great Britain. If it were less intent on breaking up the country it may soon help govern, and if it fielded candidates throughout the entire UK, it might even be able to win outright.
There is a lesson in the SNP’s rise that has implications for the 2016 electoral season already unfolding in the United States.
In all developed countries, including our own, voters are less inclined than they used to be to think that it is acceptable, or even necessary, that only a tiny fraction of the population benefits as productive capacities expand at a dizzying rate, and while everyone else becomes, in varying degrees, worse off – the greatest burdens falling on those who are already the least well off of all.
Try as neoliberal ideologues might, it is a lot harder than it was just a few years ago to convince the general public that this is how it must be.
Voters everywhere are way ahead of the political leaders of their respective countries.
Hillary’s single moms and biracial families, and her gay couples, don’t speak to these concerns, though they are of great importance to people who fall under those descriptions and to others who do not, but care about those who do.
Even if her sales force gets her to declare support for a few Elizabeth Warren – Bernie Sanders type reforms, it will make hardly any difference; and not just because everybody knows that, were she to become President, whatever she says now will be yesterday’s lunch.
It will make hardly any difference because the realization is dawning that tinkering here and there is, at best, a palliative, not a solution. There is something rotten in the system itself, and more and more people are beginning to realize it.
No Democrat, including Webb, is likely to propose anything that would seriously address this rot.
But a Democrat can address one of the fundamental conditions of its possibility: the Democratic Party’s malign neglect of the working class and of the white, rural population in so-called “red” states, the South especially.
This is what a Webb candidacy could do. It is unlikely that anyone else with any chance at all of winning the Democratic nomination could do it nearly as well.
And it is certain that, no matter how “populist” the New Hillary’s guise, she will not – and probably cannot – do it at all.
* * *
There is a good chance that Hillary understands this, but doesn’t care – because it is the average donor, not the average citizen, that she aims to please.
That has always been the Clinton way. But the times are changing – more quickly and more profoundly than Hillary Clinton’s makeover team imagines.
The New Hillary is nevertheless likely to win the nomination and, if she does, she will win the race for the presidency, just as the New Nixon did.
She and her people ought to reflect on all the harm that came out of that; all the murder and mayhem, and all the devastation.
They might also reflect on Nixon’s fate. Theirs could be even worse.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).