Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Vote for the Liberal!

(Part five of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?; Part Three, The Affirmative Action Arguments; Part Four, Experience and Other Distractions.)

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.

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.
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 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.


Rasselas said...

I am less than perfectly comfortable with your description of the "rare opportunity" arising from the wreckage of the George W. Bush era. Practically, because I think that the "people hate the war, so they'll vote for universal healthcare and the other things that I want" theory is flawed, at best. People expected great things in 1992, too, but there was only so much advantage to be gained from the unhappiness attending an economic recession. Morally, because planning to, and how to, leverage public sentiment about one event (e.g., a war that is bad in every sense) in favor of other, unrelated purposes seems wrong. If the war is as important as everyone claims to believe, then it ought to be more important than trying to vindicate some longtime ambitions.

Stephen said...

Going backwards: I actually disagree with you about the morality, because I think that "vindicate some longtime ambitions" radically understates what's at stake here: we are talking about saving people's lives; also, just because the war is "important", doesn't mean that it's irrelevant to broader ideological issues. It was messed up, in large part, because of aspects of conservative ideology. And so its reasonable to show how those apply more broadly.

But at any rate I don't think this is just about the war, either. I think a lot of other things -- misuse of executive power, corruption, Katrina, that bridge in Minneapolis, the over-reach in the Terry Schaivo case, and so on and so forth, have also exposed many different problems with conservative governance. And I think that this confluence of things, from many angles, has given us an opportunity to show how conservatism fails in many different ways, for many different reasons. (In part this will require drawing connections between all these things. A few people are working on it -- Rick Perlstein is on the case -- but more need to step up.)

And you're right that 1992 didn't work. There are lots of reasons for that -- I think maybe (maybe) it could have worked, if we'd played it differently: which is why I'd like to see this one handled right.

But, in fact, I think this is actually a bigger opportunity than 1992, for lots of reasons. (The fact that something didn't work fifteen years ago is as much a confirmation of a moment being a once-in-a-generation opportunity as it is a refutation of it!) In 1992 the demographics were against us -- we were about to loose the white South, and the congress with it; now they're not. In 1992 we'd controlled Congress for decades; now they have, for fourteen years. And so forth. (On health care in particular, I think there is a lot broader sense that the system is broken and needs to be fixed than there was in the early 90's: things have changed a lot in those fifteen years.)

Not to mention the fact that we might have a full-blown recession by '08 too, if we're not lucky.

So I think I disagree with you across the board on this one. (Though as always, of course, I'm delighted you're commenting!)

Rasselas said...

I have heard a great deal about the need to save lives, what must be done in order to save lives, and the deference due to governmental actions stated to be intended to save lives, over the past six years. Perhaps as much as I heard about "the children" during what I expect we ought to start calling the first Clinton era, yet the children at home and in Africa and the Balkans didn't do all that well under the Slickster.

Less unkindly, I think the first paragraph of your answer suggests the distance between us: I am uncomfortable with attempts to make ideological hay of the war and the many, many wrongful deaths and other ugly things for which the Bush Administration is responsible. Pressed, I would probably admit that I believe that the horrors of war do render the ideological issues irrelevant, and the attempt to build a platform -- whether a social welfare platform or an imperialist one -- on the bones of the dead ghoulish at best. (A little purple. Sorry. I don't get to indulge myself in written work at the office very often.) The response might be that a winning campaign cannot afford the niceties of taste and scruple that people like me would prefer, to which I would say that you never know until you try.

Stephen said...

We probably won't agree on this.

I think that the truth of the matter is not irrelevant here. Yes, Clinton said a lot of nonsense about saving children, and Bush says a lot of nonsense about saving lives. But the reason they say it is because they are misusing something genuinely important to support bad policies. This doesn't mean its wrong or irrelevant or whatever when it is said to support good policies.

Also, I detect in your thinking -- such as the phrase "make ideological hay" -- an attitude I deeply disagree with, usually found on the right: when some horror happens -- some horror that has happened, directly or indirectly, because of political decisions (arising out of ideologies), they then say that we "shouldn't politicize" or "shouldn't play politics" -- often, "especially now". But politics isn't a game, and it isn't trivial, and it isn't about two equally good or venal sides trying to gain leverage over each other. Politics, and policies, are matters of life and death to real people. If we don't have universal health care coverage, people without insurance will die who would otherwise have lived. If we wage an aggressive war against Iran, people will die who would otherwise have lived. "Making hay" and "playing politics" buy into the idea that politics is about nothing: it's about matters of life and death, and the horrible results of bad (even malevolent) policies must be discussed or they won't be changed.

Rasselas said...

Politics, and policies, are matters of life and death to real people. If we don't have universal health care coverage, people without insurance will die who would otherwise have lived. If we wage an aggressive war against Iran, people will die who would otherwise have lived.

Indeed, but not the same people. I think there is a traditional hypothetical involving a train and its tracks that might highlight some differences between adopting or not adopting a particular social welfare program and waging aggressive war in violation of the traditional and codified laws of war.

For the avoidance of doubt, I don't believe that war policy ought to be immune to criticism or attack in the political discussion on the grounds that that sort of attack harms social cohesion or some other chimera, and I am as enthusiastic about universal health care as the next apathetic slacker. I don't think I become a resident of the David Broder-Joe Lieberman Memorial Tar Pit just because I happen to be repelled by arguments that blur distinctions between deaths caused by our aggression and deaths resulting from the way the United States rations medical care.

Put another way, there may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but the Democrats are no more entitled to it than the Republicans.

Marc said...

Rasselas, I don't see Stephen blurring those distinctions. He is saying (and I feel no compunctions about paraphrasing him here, since he's made this case pretty clearly) that conservatism has failed the public in multiple ways, through wars of choice and human rights abuses and infrastructure collapse and health care neglect and a half-dozen other ways, and arguing that any candidate who claims they can offer an effective alternative has to seize the opportunity to challenge conservatism and articulate a liberal vision in all of these areas. They shouldn't pitch universal health care because of Iraq; they should pitch it because a lot of people need health care, and conservatism is wrong when it says we should leave that to the health insurance industry. The wreckage of conservative government may be most visible in Iraq (or New Orleans, or Minneapolis...), but it's a system-wide failure.

I really don't see Stephen making the arguments that repel you.