Hillary Clinton: Leader of Progressive Change?

President Obama and Hillary Clinton

The elections of 2016 are an exceedingly strange affair, but they are beginning to be instructive. Let’s say the polls hold up and Hillary Clinton wins. What should she have learned? What does she seem to have learned, and what has she not absorbed?

Clearly, like Barack Obama, she has failed to apprehend the fact that the era of neoliberal economics has run its course and turned toxic. She has failed, also, to understand the difference between crimes and acts of war. She does not seem to have learned that the rumbling below the decks of her party — Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” — is the harbinger of full-fledged mutiny.

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Her supporters believe she is a true liberal, and the left wing of the party, such as it is, believes she won’t do anything substantial on the economic front. Probably, they are both correct in some sense. Her history shows her to be a person who wants to make conditions better for the poor, but not one who wants to change the system enough to materially alter the fact of their poverty.

Is she for real? A legitimate question.

On the other hand, Clinton has thrown her weight behind a proposed constitutional amendment that would, in effect, overturn the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling, which allows unfettered corporate donations to political causes. Is she for real?

The question is legitimate, and it is fundamentally important, perhaps supremely important. As to its importance, let’s examine a few facts. If Clinton wants to do anything about the most urgent problems of the day — climate change first, followed in no particular order by income and wealth inequality, national security, universal medical care, and economic growth — she must first tackle the problem of money in politics. She cannot put any legislation through the Congress that will alleviate any of those problems until Congress changes quite substantially. That cannot happen until political campaigns are freed from the poisonous infusions of cash from self-interested sources.

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Democrats control only about a quarter of state legislatures, and less than a third of governorships. Because of the take-no-prisoners nature of contemporary Republican politics, the result is not only wildly right-wing legislation, but also gerrymandering of congressional districts in a fashion so bold and bizarre as to make elections meaningless in many places. Most of this was accomplished with money, boatloads of money, from people like Charles and David Koch, spending in places where they had no direct stake.

As a candidate who has, herself, no outstanding political assets other than money, Clinton may seem an unlikely person to take on the problem. Yet she has, promising to back a constitutional amendment that would have the effect of overturning the Supreme Court’s catastrophic 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. That ruling allowed for unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions on political causes, theoretically (wink, nod) not coordinated with campaigns. It opened the door for “super” political action committees and the floodgates for money from people like the Kochs.
amendThe problem with a constitutional amendment is that, largely because of Citizens United, it is probably impossible to pass. The process requires the cooperation of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of state legislatures. These people may be mice on a money-begging treadmill, but asking them to get off and try fair elections is comical.

So Clinton’s amendment will almost certainly fail. Maybe the tenacity that her supporters claim she possesses will propel her to try another tack. Fine, but the amendment’s failure will be used as an argument that “the people” (wink, nod) have already spoken.

It’s not the best way to beat Citizens United, anyway. Democrats, even the ones who are disappointed in Clinton’s nomination, are pretty well united behind her because they trust that she will make responsible appointments to the federal bench, where she is likely to be faced with a substantial backlog owing to Republican recalcitrance on Senate approval.

These appointments are particularly critical, of course, on the Supreme Court, to which the next president may make as many as four appointments. If Clinton is elected, and if Republicans decide they can’t filibuster everything to death, a responsible Court would reverse both Citizens United and the wholesale gerrymandering. Partitioning the country to favor one party is not democratic, and, quite arguably, not constitutional. Such a court also could be counted on, probably, to put an end to some of the vote-suppression efforts that keep Republicans afloat against a demographic tide of change against them.

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Clinton is not going to become a Dennis Kucinich. She is not going to be anything but neoliberal in her economics and neoconservative in foreign policy. She will support fossil fuels and accede to the anti-regulatory demands of her Wall Street sponsors. She will sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership after a couple of meaningless tweaks. She will, quite likely, prosecute war more vigorously than her predecessor. Clinton can, though, by helping to end the legal fictions supporting the Republican Party’s efforts to stifle democracy itself, pave the way for a more progressive future.

One would think that President Clinton might be forced to attend to some priorities of the left-liberal base of her party. Robert Reich, her husband’s Labor secretary, argues in a recent edition of The Nation that progressives should split from the Democrats after the election and form a new party. That would light a fire under just about anybody, don’t you think?

Terry McAuliffe and Clinton

Clinton is unlikely to feel the heat. She is a product and a maven of a Democratic establishment built on big money. Think Terry McAuliffe, Bert Lance, Bob Strauss, Bobby Baker.

With considerable irony, however, Clinton may become the president who leads the way to a much more solidly progressive party and country. Leadership takes a lot of forms, not all of them charismatic or even visible. The court appointments, arguably, are not only the most important thing Clinton can do, but pretty nearly the only thing she can do, to change the country’s direction in a fundamental way. A large increase in the minimum wage, a carbon tax, and a restoration of Glass-Steagall are all important to progressives. None of them is going to happen with the House as it is. The House membership is likely to change only after a court-forced return to a more democratic election system. It is the president — a Democratic president — who can make that happen.

Here’s one vote for Hillary Clinton.