And now we get to the real arguments, the fundamental reason that liberal Democrats should not support Hillary. I will be spelling these out, elaborating on them, and so forth, in the forthcoming parts -- which will include arguments which (I believe) ought to sway people who are not liberal Democrats too.
But for liberal Democrats, the argument is really quite simple:
If you are politically liberal, you ought to support the most liberal of the viable candidates.
Or: vote for the liberal!
There are, I think, reasonable disagreements about whether this means voting for Edwards or Obama. But there's no possible way it could be read as suggesting a vote for Clinton.
The reality here is very simple. Hillary Clinton -- like her husband -- is a centrist. She's a triangulator. She believes in the (supposed) centrist consensus of American politics -- the pro-business, pro-empire, but not lunatic-right-wing consensus that American elites cluster around. As far as that goes, she's a pretty decent version of it, I suppose.
But that's not what liberals want, or should want. We should want someone who will shift the politics of the country towards the left.
To a large degree this is a rhetorical project -- a project of selling values, philosophies, world views; of shifting the overton window; of changing the underlying assumptions of the debate. This is, for me, one of the central points -- enough so that I will devote an entire entry in this series to it (the projected future part eight).
Clinton seems perfectly willing to adopt left-wing ideas once they have become mainstream -- adopting John Edwards' health care plan, for instance (and good for her: it ain't perfect, but it'd be a heck of a lot better than what we got now); or opposing the war. But what about low-profile issues? Issues where she has to make a spur-of-the-moment decision? Issues where she has to lead? Clinton's instinct will almost certainly be what it has always been: to play it safe (or what our political class assumes will be safe), to try to play off both "extremes" against some imaginary middle.
This spirit will pervade her government; and it's far less than a liberal should hope for.
In some sense, this basic notion -- the idea that one should vote for the person most broadly in agreement with one's beliefs -- is far more important than any of the specifics on any issues that any of the campaigns put forward. This is true for two reasons.
First, because so much of what a president does is done through appointments. It is the presidential appointments -- not the high-profile stuff like the cabinet posts, but the lower-down posts -- that affect so much of the governance that a president is the public face of. Which laws are vigorously enforced, and which only reluctantly; how those laws are interpreted in novel situations; what relationships regulators have to those they regulate -- all of these things are affected by the president's appointments. That's one of the reasons that Bush has been such a disaster in so many areas: the cronies and hacks that he's appointed, the ideological nitwits with barely any expertise about or even interest in the government they are supposed to be running, go deep, and lead to corruption, mismanagement and mendacity such as has been so routine in this administration.
But Clinton will appoint very central, standards DLC-Democrat types. Her economic advisors will be centrist, if not slightly-right-of-center ones; so will her advisors in every other area. It will be the Clinton restoration. Which, needless to say, will be like heaven after the multiple calamities of Bush. But will be far less than we should want out of the government. As I wrote in earlier installments: the Republicans' trashing of their brand (and of conservatism) has created a (possibly) once-in-a-generation opportunity here. We should ask for more than the cautious, half-way
Now, Edwards and Obama will appoint a lot of those too. But they'll appoint fewer. And, more to the point, there's at least the hope that they'll appoint some staunch liberals in the government, in a way that Clinton almost certainly will not. Worst case scenario? They appoint the same centrist technocrats that Clinton would: and what have you lost? But in the many appointments they make, surely in some cases they'll be better?
Isn't that worth going for?
Aside from the issue of staff, there is another -- equally if not more important -- reason to vote for the person who matches your political preferences broadly, rather than focusing on a particular candidate for one particular reason. And that's the inevitable fact that what presidents actually focus on and deal with are things that no one has foreseen. History is, as always, unpredictable.
Therefore you need to vote for general tendencies. And, again, Hillary Clinton is the most conservative of the three major democratic candidates.
I will go on, in the next two installments, to make arguments about two central areas of policy -- ones that are of central importance in the foreseeable future. (Although even there I'm going to focus on broad areas rather than specific policy proposals.) In other crucial areas -- such as health care and gay rights -- all three of the leading candidates are about the same: far better than any republican; quite far from as good as I'd wish.
But who knows what the next president will actually deal with?
All three candidates have plans for Iraq. But (as many blog writers, at least, have pointed out) all are plans for right now; none are dealing with where we'll be in January, 2009 -- with two and two-thirds more Friedmans gone, Iraq still a hell on Earth, our army even more broken than it is now. And certainly none of them have plans for the frighteningly likely possibility that by the time we become president, Bush will have launched yet another criminal war, this time against Iran.
Will they have to deal with an economic meltdown? Some new area of cultural war we can hardly imagine now? Who knows?
And, of course, there's not guarantee that any of them will do well.
But the best gamble is on the one with the most sensible political approach overall -- not the one who's the best on this or that policy.
What we want is a strong, solid liberal.
Barbara Boxer'd be great; but she's not running. Paul Wellstone would be great; but he's dead. Maybe Kucinich would be good; but he won't win.
Of the plausible candidates, there's reason to think that both Obama and Edwards are the most liberal.
There's every reason to think that Hillary Clinton is the least liberal.
Which is why liberals shouldn't support her.
Interestingly, my friend's arguments for Hillary -- which you can read in her own words in comments here (and I encourage everyone to do so) -- have a big component of "I've-been-hurt-before-so-I'll-take-the-known-quantity" in them. Like many spurned lovers, my friend is scared of hoping for something better. Liberals were disappointed in Bill Clinton (boy, was I ever disappointed!); so we shouldn't hope for more. This is evident not only in the ire against Gore (which is a fair cop, I'll admit), but in this:
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.It seems to me that the idea of picking someone who you know is not a liberal, not passionate, over someone who might possibly be is (for a liberal) madness. It's quite clear that Obama and Edwards might be no more than "rational, calculating, competent". But they certainly won't be any less. And I think that picking someone who is known to be as good as the worst case scenario of the other two is wildly defeatist.
Yeah, we'll be disappointed with Obama or Edwards. Inevitably. But we'll be disappointed in Clinton too -- probably in every single case that we would with Obama and Edwards. And with Obama or Edwards we might, sometime, be surprised in a positive way.
I agree that "competent - and not venal" is better than what we have now. But I disagree that it's good enough. As I've said: this is a chance, in the face of conservatism not only rampant but overwhelmingly obvious failure, to make a real case for liberal -- to appoint a real liberal. Not a centrist; not a triangulator.
Edwards and Obama may not be that. But Clinton definitely isn't. Let's go with somewhere there's hope for better.
And less chance of things being worse. Which brings me to the area where I fear Clinton the most: foreign policy.
I had already written the above when I came across David Brooks's column for today. Kept safe by the NYT Firewall, I haven't read Brooks in two years, but from what I remember, he usually deserves his appallingly bad reputation. (Maybe he's improved.*) Today, however, I think he's basically right.
Oh, his tone implies all sorts of ridiculous things -- he gets the netroots totally wrong (honestly, some of these right-wing pundits sound like they're afraid they're living in a Phil Ochs song or something); he uses the usual "intellectual" spin to try to disdain liberals versus centrists (i.e. liberals are "intellectuals" therefore elite; centrists are the salt of the earth, real Americans; usually used by Republicans vs. Democrats, but always good in a pinch); and so forth. (Update: If you want a demolition of the mendacious and malevolent parts of Brooks's column, read today's piece by Glenn Greenwald.) But Brooks's basic point is celebratory: the centrist party -- the party of "the old Clinton establishment in Washington" -- is winning.
Now, I think he's wrong about why they're winning. He thinks it's because
Democratic politicians... know their party has a historic opportunity to pick up disaffected Republicans and moderates, so long as they don’t blow it by drifting into cuckoo land. They also know that a Democratic president is going to face challenges from Iran and elsewhere that are going to require hard-line, hawkish responses. Finally, these Democrats understand their victory formula is not brain surgery. You have to be moderate on social issues, activist but not statist on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy.Translation help: for "moderate on social issues", read, anti-gay equality but (at least squishily) pro-choice; for "activist but not statist" read: not going to fool around with any good health care plans; and for "hawkish on foreign policy" read "lacking any reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense." (Wording of that last from here.)
Now, I think he's wrong about what Democrats need to do to win. (Of course, I'm a member of the netroots, I suppose, so I guess I would think that, wouldn't I?) And his claim that not wanting to be "hawkish" -- read: in favor of wars of aggression -- makes you "cuckoo" is, well, depressing in how well it reflects the D.C. establishment, but morally horrific.
But he's right that the most hawkish and least liberal candidate is Clinton, and that she's winning.
And liberals -- and people who don't want to live in an Empire -- should be against this.
(Brooks is happy Clinton's ahead, of course, because he's a conservative imperialist. The netroots, who tend to be in favor of odd things like not starting aggressive wars against countries that don't threaten us, restoring the balance of constitutional power between the executives, universal health care on the European model, etc, are unhappy for the same reasons -- even if the others aren't not nearly as good as we'd like (then, I doubt Brooks will vote for Clinton: he'll probably support whichever cuckoo the Republicans settle on.))
So why is she winning, if it's not that she's hawkish, moderate and "not statist"? Well, I think it's because she's successfully misleading people about her positions. The same polls that show she's ahead show that Democratic voters think she's the most likely to end the war -- the most anti-war candidate. (Probably in part because she's running ads like the one critiqued in the video here (also here and here)).
Basically, she's doing what Joe Liberman did: projecting a false dovish image long enough to win the election. (Now that he's back to his old self again, by the way, Liberman would loose if the election were re-held -- but it won't be, so he's free to war monger all he wants.)
But she might successfully do it through the rest of the election. Still, liberals who know better should not support the balancing of Bush's right-wing lunacy by a return to mushy, hawkish, "moderate" Clintonism. We need to do better than that.
Now, the other mistake that I think Brooks makes is thinking that the netroots influence is that big with Edwards and Obama. The most serious critique of my position here, I think, is not that Clinton is better but that she's only marginally worse.** But the point is, she's clearly worse -- more hawkish, more "moderate", less likely to, well, end wars and promote liberal reforms -- even if how much worse is up for question.
Brooks knows which side favors his constituency -- the rich, the hawks, the D.C. establishment friendly. He's glad she's winning. Those of us who have other priorities shouldn't be.
(Update: Another view: Matt Yglesias -- no less irritated than Glenn Greenwald, or I -- sees the bright side of the reality behind Brooks's column.)
Later Update: As far as the correlation between Hawkishness and winning, see this post by Steve Benena>. Even Later: Tom Tomorrow has a special cartoon on the Brooks column in this post.
(As noted here, I have been forced to put this blog on the back-burner for a few weeks; normal blogging will resume sometime in November. It may be a few weeks before I manage to complete parts six through eight, therefore. But I strongly intend to finish this series before any votes are cast, so watch this space...)
This series, past and projected.
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 excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy
* That's what we call a laugh line, folks.
** Indeed, reading Chris Floyd last night I almost gave up the idea of this series completely; I'm finishing because I do think there is a difference, and that that difference is likely to be important even if small (remember Nader and 2000!), and also because, well, momentum and promises and all that. And the key fact that I've not heard any plausible suggestions from the abandon-the-Democrats crowd -- note that Chris Floyd in that post suggests only symbolic and/or extremely unlikely possibilities.