Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Introduction

The other day I spoke with a friend of mine, a firmly liberal Jewish woman, about who she was supporting in the Democratic presidential primary. Rather to my surprise, she said she was supporting Hillary Clinton. I say "to my surprise" because, in all the talk with all my liberal friends about the race, I hadn't actually talked to a real, live Hillary supporter before. I knew they were out there -- she's leading in the polls, so obviously she has a big constituency -- but for me it was like the existence of Bush supporters: I know that there are a lot of them, but they aren't part of my social circle. Or so I had thought. But the election is just starting to come up in conversation: so I guess I don't really know. (And come to think of it, that colleague was... and...)

A few days later, I had lunch with another friend -- another liberal woman, this one from the Midwest -- and she, too, said she was supporting Hillary. When I described the reasons the first friend gave, the second friend agreed that those were pretty much her reasons too.

So having encountered Hillary supporters not online, not in print, but in person, indeed in the person of friends I care about and respect, I want to consider (yes, online and in print, not in person, unless you, Noble Reader, want to fly to Ithaca: we'll do lunch) the reasons that these friends of mine gave -- and why I think they are so terribly mistaken.

It may be too late: the U.S. media is already building a Hillary-is-inevitable narrative, and of course the media in this country are interested largely in narratives rather than in policy or any of the other things in politics that actually affect our lives. And, of course, my blog isn't read by more than a handful of readers. But confronted by an impending mistake -- indeed, I fear, a grave mistake -- I throw what I have into opposing it, little though that may be and hopeless though the cause might be.

Let me begin by saying that I think one central problem here is the existence of two leading candidates apart from Clinton. If the liberal wing of the Democratic party -- and that's really what we're talking about here, I think: Clinton represents the establishment, centrist, DLC, old-school side of the party, and both Edwards and Obama represent the liberal side, except insofar as Clinton has suckered (I use the word deliberately) liberals such as my friends into seeing no difference between them (more on this anon). Start again. If the liberal wing of the Democratic party splits, of course the establishment candidate will win. Even if this series of blog posts, in a miracle of biblical proportions, reaches half the Democrats in the country and convinces them all, Hillary would still win if we split between Edwards and Obama. Unless the anti-Hillary forces coalesce around a single candidate, Hillary will win.

I don't have an answer for this last one. I don't even have a candidate: at the moment, my current plan is to vote for whichever candidate -- Edwards or Obama -- is the anti-Hillary candidate at the time of the New York state primary. This is presuming that one or the other of them will have (practically if not technically) knocked the other out of the race by that point, but that that one still has a chance to win. If in fact by the time of the New York primary Hillary has the nomination sewn up, I'll vote for Kucinich as a protest-vote against the hawkish, pro-Empire tendencies of the Democrats; if, in fact, all three candidates are still viable, I'll then have to choose between Edwards and Obama. (I'm leaning in one direction, but quite definitely swayable on this point -- or even towards Bill Richardson or one of the other dark-horse candidates.)

I'm not saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn't be an okay President. She would, without question or doubt, be far better than any Republican currently either in the race or considering it -- with the extremely problematic, possible exception of Ron Paul, who would be far worse about almost everything but far better about the most important thing. But let's face it: he's Kucinich on the other side -- a nice idea, but not going to happen. So, certainly, if Clinton's the Democratic candidate, I'll vote for her, I'll support her, I'll hope she'll win.

But I think it will be a mistake -- a grave mistake, a mistake that will throw away a big chance, both for liberalism as a movement in America, and for our country as a whole. I think that Hillary Clinton will be distinctly worse than either Edwards and Obama -- although both of them are far, far, far from as good as I would wish or as I hoped they would be.

So I want to speak -- with as much force as I can, which admittedly isn't much -- to my fellow Democrats, and particular to those within the party who think of themselves as largely on the left -- as my friends do -- and see if I can convince them that I'm right.

At the moment, I am imagining this essay series as dividing into six parts; this plan may change as I go forward, however, and the essay takes final shape. But for the moment, the projected table of contents (so to speak) is as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against unchecked executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

The first three parts are, as I see it, necessary hurdles to jump; the final three parts will be the core of my argument here.

Except to see new entries regularly -- about one a day for the next week or so if I can manage it (excepting Saturday, which is Yom Kippur). If not, they'll still come as fast as I can write 'em. So stay tuned!

Part two is now posted; click here to read it.

Update 9/23: My friend (the first of the two I mentioned) was kind enough to post her own version of her arguments in comments here. Thus instead of relying on my summary, you should click through and read what she has to say herself.


Rachel B. said...

Absolutely no offense taken to the challenge, SSF. I am hardly HRC's most ardent admirer, but want to be clear why I'm backing her candidacy.

First, I am deeply skeptical that any of her competitors will deliver what you hope they will. On Edwards - His one term was deeply disappointing on the things I care about the most: the war, gay rights, and civil liberties. He aggressively championed the war, declined to vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, and supported the Patriot Act. He may recant some of those positions now - but he's not accountable for them in the present moment. On Obama - Beyond a great speech at the last convention, I'm not sure what he's delivered. I get email from his campaign every day, and near as I can tell the only thing he's done since taking office is back away from equal rights for gays and lesbians. I have talked to true believers in support of both men, and I want to believe they're right, I really do. But I believed in Bill Clinton, and I believed in the tooth fairy too - which leads me to the second reason I'm supporting Rodham Clinton.

With HRC, you know what you're getting. She's not a liberal, she's not an ideologue, she's not passionate. I will never understand what makes her tick. However, she has spent her entire life in the public eye, and she is exactly who she seems to be: rational, calculating, competent. After the past eight years, competent - and not venal - sounds pretty good.

Third, she wants to win. As someone whose blood still boils at the sight of Al "Well, I guess you can just go ahead and steal the presidency" Gore, I want a Democrat with sharp elbows and fangs, who would sell their child to be president. I have only my gut to go on, but Obama feels like he's testing the waters and enjoying the ego gratification, not running for his life. I admired Edwards for going on with his campaign after his wife's cancer recurred, but I'm going to be blunt: she's going to get sicker and sicker, and die sooner than is fair, and he has two small children. I can't imagine that 100% of his fighting spirit is going to be devoted to winning an election that is still more than a year away. HRC has been waiting her whole life for this moment, she has a fierce, savvy team that is devoted to winning, and she won't let anything stand in her way. As a Democrat, that's what I want in my candidate.

And last but far from least: I want a woman President. So long as Congress is only 16% female, and there is one woman on the Supreme Court, and nowhere in the world are women a majority of a legislature, we are second-class citizens and always will be. Rodham Clinton is far from perfect, but she's not Margaret Thatcher by any stretch. We have waited far too long, she is ready, and she has my vote.

Marc said...

Rachel, I don't doubt that Hillary Clinton wants very much to be President, but I see that ambition as one of the main points against her--because, like her husband's ambition, it seems focused so squarely on her own career and not on any larger ideals. Bill Clinton gutted liberal politics in this country in the interest of that ambition, removing the opposition that a two-party system needs and tilting the national political discourse far to the right. Now, at a moment when the public seems very receptive to restoring that opposition and rebalancing that discourse, is the absolute worst time to go back for a second helping. I'd say Hillary is passionate about herself, but not about any ideology, which gets it precisely backwards.

But I'm not commenting because I want to pick apart your candidate. Rational and competent sound pretty good to me, too, and better than anything the modern conservative movement has to offer. (Calculating? No change from Bush--no change at all.) But in the primary season, we have a chance to do better than just settle for "better than the other guys." We have a chance to pick a candidate who not only shares our politics, but has the courage and the will to move them forward.

I'm writing because I wanted to say, Stephen, that I don't think you should wait to vote for whichever opposition candidate is polling higher on your state's primary day, because by primary day you will have already squandered your best chances to make a real impact on the election. Participating in a campaign now--whether it's by donating, canvassing, phone banking, other forms of volunteering, or even just talking to friends and family about which candidate you're supporting--can accomplish a lot more than casting a single vote on primary day. And knocking off the media's presumptive appointee may require a lot more than just voting. (As I remember every time I see some canned CNN point-counterpoint discussion where the "liberal" side is represented by some Clinton insider, if not an actual Clinton campaign official.) If you wait until primary day, and you live anywhere but Iowa or New Hampshire, it will already be over.

Like you, I'm weighing the options between Obama and Edwards, leaning pretty heavily one way but still swayable, but I think I'm going to have to make a commitment soon--maybe even before the September 30 fundraising deadline, certainly long before the voting starts. I hope you'll do the same.

Stephen said...


If I can make up my mind before the primary day, I certainly will try to help the campaign in some way. But at the moment, I'm torn, and am not seeing any particularly good way to un-tear myself. I have serious issues with both candidates -- and the one I'm leaning towards keeps driving me off.

But it's a good point -- and a worthwhile reminder. Thanks for making it.


(PS: Totally OT, but Marc, if you're reading this, let me just say I miss your blogging; I hope you find time to do it more often. Other readers: you haven't seen it, Marc does some of the best comics blogging on the web at I am not the beastmaster -- and covers other topics, too. Worth checking out.