Hope vs. History: Will the Real Hillary Please Stand Up?

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Hillary Clinton
Maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised...maybe?

Hillary Clinton is likely to become America’s next president. Among the many fascinating implications of that fact is a chance to find out, finally, who and what she is. Does she have core beliefs? What are they? Will she act on them? Sometimes questions like that are not answered until a person reaches the pinnacle of a career.

Certainly we didn’t know the real Lyndon Johnson until he became president. We knew he was guilty of a lot of shenanigans — political, financial and personal. Yet, despite his having served a career in elective office, we could not have measured his commitment to the underprivileged, to African-Americans, to justice and to the ideals of the New Deal, which he expanded into the glories of the Great Society. Unfortunately, we were also unable to measure the fear that the demagogue Joe McCarthy had inflicted on a generation of Democratic politicians. Johnson was terrified that withdrawing from the American crime that was the Vietnam War would make him look soft on communism.

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Earl Warren, when he became Chief Justice of the United States, surprised pretty much everybody, establishing a court that helped lead the way to the most liberal era of jurisprudence in our history.

Who would have guessed that Theodore Roosevelt would have bolted from Republican orthodoxy and invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act against the most powerful corporate interests in the country? Or that his wealthy cousin Franklin would have become, in H. W. Brands’ words, a traitor to his class, spending himself on behalf of the poor and the broken? History is full of these examples. Maybe Secretary Clinton will be another.

Young Hillary Clinton
Young Hillary Clinton

A majority of Democratic voters in the primary season opted for Clinton. It is probably safe to say that most of them take her to be a progressive. There is some reason to believe such a thing. She is loud about her feminism, even if it is not always backed up by action, and — largely as a means of fighting off the Bernie Sanders primary challenge — she has moved a bit left on some issues lately (first opposing, then endorsing, a $15 minimum wage, for example). She gave a good speech at Wellesley a long time ago, and she has associated with such reliable liberals as Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, where Edelman granted Clinton her first job after law school.

But Edelman repudiated Clinton and her husband after Bill Clinton’s administration colluded with Republicans to destroy welfare in the 1990s. Hillary supported her husband in that effort. The rest of her record is anything but progressive. In fact, she seems to be shaped by failure, defined by caution and far less puzzling than predictable.

To establish these assessments, it is necessary to examine not just her record, but also that of her husband. This is dangerous ground, because her supporters will want to say, “Let her stand on her own.” Those same people, however, would be the first to argue — correctly — that Hillary Clinton has had a great deal of influence on her husband. Some who have followed the two quite closely say her own will is stronger than his and is reflected in policies that otherwise seem surprising.

So what’s this about failure and caution? Bill Clinton’s first term as governor was marked by liberal initiatives, notably his aide Steve Smith’s crusade against clear-cutting pine timber and his acceptance of a few Cuban refugees (criminals, apparently) at an old Army base known as Fort Chaffee. Along with some other stuff, they got him defeated. He came back, but only after moderating a lot of positions, apologizing and sucking up harder than a leech to the late Bob Starr, then managing editor of the ultra-conservative Arkansas Democrat.

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It was a study in how failure bred caution in both Clintons. There are others, but no space to discuss them here, except for Hillary Clinton’s spectacular failure in guiding a healthcare-reform effort early in her husband’s first presidential term. Even though it cut no one out of the obscenely profitable business, it went down in flames. Do not count on her to back any substantial expansion of the Affordable Care Act, let alone the single-payer system the country so desperately needs.

On social issues, she talks a great game, but supported the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s, along with her husband’s anti-crime legislation, widely regarded as the single greatest cause of today’s crowded and growing prison system.

clinton walmart_span
Clinton, next to Sam Walton, on Walmart board.

Most of that pales, however, beside the question of economic management and the distribution of wealth and income. Clinton demonstrates a palpable and genuine personal concern for unfortunate people. But she has her own rather sudden and very conspicuous wealth. The sources of her campaign contributions, as well as longstanding close relationships with the likes of the Walton family (Walmart, on whose board she once sat) and Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary and a former CitiGroup chairman, raise some questions. Does she believe in anything beyond, perhaps, a trust that rising tides lift all boats? That famous phrase of John Kennedy’s ignores the relative sizes and positions of boats, as well as the fact that some of them aren’t floating.

She touts the Dodd-Frank legislation as the most significant financial regulatory improvement in recent history. Perhaps it is, but it is insufficient, not addressing the question of banks (CitiGroup, for example) that are “too big to fail.” Also, Dodd-Frank was needed in some part because of the deregulatory fervor of the ’90s, when the Clintons supported, for example, the repeal of the Depression-era protection of the Glass-Steagall Act.

Unshirted, old-fashioned, brute imperialism.

Finally, war is not a partisan issue, but efforts for peace are a hallmark of liberal history. Clinton’s record on questions of killing people is lamentable, cynical. It’s not just the Iraq war vote (can you image what a hero she would be in the party if she had led opposition to the war?), but a history of supporting military action at almost every conceivable turn. Maybe, when the decisions are hers alone, she will look first to other options than military action.

The bottom line is that Hillary Clinton has represented the worst of two worlds. She is both a neoliberal, which is why Rubin is friendly to her, and a neoconservative, which is why Dick Cheney praises her lavishly. Focused on economic policy, neoliberals spread the gospel of what is classically known as liberal capitalism. Another name for it, in this age, is corporate power. Neoconservatives spend their ammunition on foreign policy. It gets dressed up in all manner of scholarly and pseudo-scholarly folderol, but is best understood as unshirted, old-fashioned, brute imperialism.

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The people who voted for Clinton in the primary season fall, it would seem, into three camps. First, some few are genuine neolib-neocons. Others have been conditioned by Democratic politicians, mainly the Clintons, to think that something less than half a loaf is the best they can ever hope for. There are yet others, who fancy themselves liberal and believe the Clintons are liberals in spite of their having worked as hard and successfully as human beings can, for the last four decades, to send their party lurching toward the political right. If you think they haven’t, please remember that the Clintons have been guiding spirits of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), whose sole, publicly announced aim was to do exactly that.

The DLC famously championed the so-called “Third Way”. Here’s the deal: Contemporary economies in the Western world are mixed. There’s room for entrepreneurialism, so capitalistic initiative is at the core. But institutions like labor unions, along with Social Security — and much more expansive programs in most European countries — soften the hard edges of free enterprise. You can lean socialist, or lean capitalist. Those are the two ways. There is no third way, only a way to do one and call it the other.  Just for the irony of it, consider that the DLC’s think tank, funded by corporate foundations, is known as the Progressive Policy Institute. “Independent” though they claim to be, its writers have been busy turning out policy papers during this campaign season, magically mirroring Clinton’s stances.

So, as the campaign season turns, perhaps, into a presidency, progressives can hope. They can hope that buried inside a history of generally conservative politics, there is a fellow heart waiting to be liberated by power. Counting on such a thing would be an invitation to disappointment.