Just Hillary: publius v Eric Martin (Updated)

There’s an interesting argument/discussion/debate going on between Eric Martin of Total Information Awareness and publius of Obsidian Wings about Hillary Clinton that I suspect is a foretaste of the controversy that’s building in the Left Blogosphere as her candidacy intensifies and the primaries get closer. I haven’t been invited and have no business sticking my neck into this, so of course that’s precisely what I’m going to do. I haven’t made up my mind about Clinton yet, and the points brought up by each of them are the ones I’ve been debating with myself (mostly; there’s one element that bothers me that neither of them mentioned, at least not directly). And I don’t think I’m (we’re) alone in that.

publius begins with noting that he can’t get up any enthusiasm for Hillary and he’s wondering why.

I also don’t really care about her 2002 vote. A lot of smart people supported the war in good conscience. No, what bothers me is not her initial support, but her ongoing support in the face of obvious and ongoing failures. What bothers me is her prolonged post-war silence. As Yglesias has documented, she consciously played up an image as a war supporter and a hawk for years. In doing so, she essentially abandoned progressives on the foreign policy and national security fronts until very recently. “Abandon,” I think, is the most appropriate word to use. After all, the netroots’ skepticism of Clinton is rooted in the feeling that she left everyone out to dry when they could have really benefited from her speaking out.

Eric defines this as the standard criticism that she is “cynical and calculating”, responding:

The second criticism has been unfairly attributed to Clinton quite consistently throughout her political career – at least when compared to other politicians. It’s not that Clinton doesn’t possess these strategic imperatives, it’s that the groupthink has settled in such that Hillary has come to represent the conniving electoral gamesmanship of politicians in general. Let me divulge a secret though: ALL politicians have political aspirations, and the vast majority are looking to the next election, or next “promotion” available. Does anyone doubt that perennial candidate John McCain has wanted to be President for a very long time? That he has taken cynical, calculated steps to facilitate these goals. Yet, his career is not marked with the same level of suspicion as Hillary’s. How about George “clearing some brush on my ranch” Bush? Come on people.

But I’ll go further: since political power comes through winning elections, I actually admire Hillary’s desire and ability to play the electoral game. Good on her. Whereas the cold, calculating maneuvering of other politicians is greeted with praise and admiration at the skill and mastery at how they can game the system, with Hillary, for some reason, it’s viewed as unseemly and improper. It would be myopic to discount the influence of sexism on this rather obvious double standard.

(quote edited to correct one obvious typo)

While I think Eric’s characterization is fair and accurate as far as it goes, I also think, with all due respect, he’s missing the main point. What publius seems to be on about is less her maneuvering than her lack of leadership. Asking “Where was she?” is a fair question. While others were sticking their necks out and sometimes getting them chopped off, where was Hillary? Hiding in a bunker?

At the point when a political figure lets other people take all the risks and suffer all the consequences of an unpopular stand she will later adopt as her own, cynicism is not uncalled for. More importantly, it raises perfectly legitimate questions about what she would do as president. Eric boils it down to this:

Make no mistake: Hillary’s failure to oppose a carefully worded resolution, with the vote timed on the election calendar, that was framed as only providing Bush with the ability to use the threat of force to compel Saddam’s cooperation with inspectors – in a highly charged post-9/11 environment of demonization – is not the same as a future President Hillary Clinton choosing to launch a war of choice on her own. I’d rather that all of my candidates cleave to the “right” side of all such votes, but if a little gamesmanship can ensure that a more sensible administration takes the White House, I’m not going to stand in the way.

publius specifically says he doesn’t care about the vote that has much of the left up in arms, but I do, and not because of the vote itself. As publius says, a lot of other people were wrong, too, and it wasn’t always political posturing.

As I remember it, and contrary to what everyone else seems to be saying, Hillary did oppose the vote before it happened, sometimes vehemently. I remember being surprised that she had criticized Bush and his resolution in no uncertain terms but then went right ahead and voted for it. From what she had said, I’d expected her to be in the opposition. She wasn’t. Now, you can interpret that as political opportunism or you can interpret it as a failure of leadership or you can interpret it as savvy political “gamesmanship”.

That’s what I find so troubling about Clinton’s post-war response. It isn’t that she supported the war (I see no actual evidence of that), it’s that she pretty consistently hewed a middle-ground, making statements and taking steps that couldn’t be reliably defined as either pro- or anti-war. Lately, she’s gone even further, making statements that defend her vote by defending the invasion and three seconds later saying she would never have done it if she’d been president.

This might mean that Eric is absolutely right in saying that she’s been navigating a minefield, and with some success. There is no doubt he’s right about the special obstacles she’s had to face, not so much from outside but inside her own party, and from the public perceptions of her that she’s had to fight. There is an element of sexism in them, and denying it isn’t helpful. It may be that she’s been forced to play both ends against the middle because as a high-profile woman-in-politics, she has had to try to avoid the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t response in the electorate that’s almost automatic with any female running for office in this country. Look at Patty Murray, for example.

But there’s another possible interpretation of all this: she’s a Clinton.

The CW on Hillary is that she was the pivotal figure in Bill’s metamorphosis into a politician. She was the one who pushed him, directed him, made a lot of decisions for him, particularly about his campaigns. If true, that might explain what I’ve been feeling: that Hillary is basically Bill all over again, only without a lot of Bill’s formidable negatives or equally formidable positives.

What I keep smelling coming from her vote is a Clinton-esque desire to have it both ways – Hillary’s version of Bill’s mania for consensus. I could forgive Bill his determination to be likable by telling people what they wanted to hear because on some very important occasions he told people what they didn’t want to hear. This is the guy who went into tobacco country during a campaign and preached the evils of smoking. This is the guy who spoke before the most powerful figures on Wall Street and told them they had to be careful about greed and then lectured them on the economic reasons for poverty, laying the blame right at their door. That’s a kind of political courage that I have never – NEVER – seen from Hillary, and that’s disturbing.

It’s like she takes both sides of an issue so no matter which way the public jumps, she can claim she’s on their side. Whatever else that might be, however else you want to characterize it, it isn’t leadership. TIA commenter jonnybutter summarizes nicely the problem I’m having.

I agree with much of what you say here. Obviously, being good at political ‘calculation’ is a good thing, and it shouldn’t be held against her. But it’s not sufficient.

Political skill is not only about that. It’s also about *leading* when you get the chance to do it, and indeed, about fostering or creating that chance – ‘making your own luck’ as it were. HRC vis a vis the war – not the vote on the resolution, but her posture after that, long after that – is disappointing in this respect, and I have to agree with pub that this is an exemplary failing.

The suggestion is that Hillary doesn’t lead, and the fact is that she hasn’t. She’s had one full term as a Senator which is marked by…not much. Granted the Republicans were in charge all that time, still, while Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and other Dems in both the House and Senate were making things as tough as possible for Bush and his cronies in a number of different areas besides the war, Hillary’s primary contribution was…silence. She attached herself to other peoples’ initiatives but never, so far as I know, had any of her own. She never led on any issue. That’s the essential difference in interpreting her actions – or lack of them. Eric concludes:

What she has had to do is define – or re-brand – her personal narrative for the election. After that, she will have a freer hand to govern and I don’t think she’ll be any more inclined to do something stupid for political reasons than any other candidate.

And maybe that’s what this all boils down to – that Hillary is no worse than everyone else. But it sounds suspiciously like the DLC’s obsessive mantra of doing whatever you need to do to win, and if that means compromising your core values, then so be it. Pragmatism first.

Wherein lies the problem neither of them mentioned: Hillary’s deep connection with the Democratic Leadership Council.

She’s a founder, for gad’s-sake. She pulled in Frick-and-Frack (Al From and Bob Shrum to you) and helped them design their Republican-Lite strategy to elect Bill. How you feel about that depends, I suppose, on how you feel about New Democrats and their wholesale abandonment of old Democratic principles and constituencies to favor corporations and get those $$$Big Business Bucks$$$ rolling in to Democratic campaigns as well as Republican ones. Was it – is it – worth it?

Personally, how I feel about her Iraq vote or even her silence since pales in comparison. It’s hard not to see the DLC as betraying the Democrats’ traditional values and focus on ordinary working people in order to chase the Pubs’ tails pandering to the corporatocracy. I’m not sure I’ll be able to overcome that if Hillary is the nominee because that betrayal isn’t some politically smart gesture, it’s a long-term signifier of who she really is and what she really believes behind all the ambiguous phraseology.

Is that enough to prevent her from being my default candidate if she’s the nominee and up against a Romney or a McCain?

At this point, I honestly don’t know.

Update: I hinted in the above that Hillary tends to shy away from controversial issues until she knows how they’re going to shake out.

At the point when a political figure lets other people take all the risks and suffer all the consequences of an unpopular stand she will later adopt as her own, cynicism is not uncalled for.

At AMERICAblog, John Aravois notes a recent illustration of this in a controversy – homosexuality – that isn’t going anywhere for a very long time to come. Asked if she agreed with Pace that “homosexuality is immoral”, her answer speaks volumes.

Hillary: “Well, I’m going to leave that to others to conclude.”

That’s a leadership problem and a courage problem. And it’s pure Clinton.

Update 2: Matt Yglesias on Hillary’s attempt to have it both ways on Iraq:

Hillary Clinton is, I think, to be congratulated for stating reasonably clearly that her vision of “bringing the troops home” from Iraq after she becomes president doesn’t actually entail our troops not being in Iraq. Instead, The New York Times reports, “she would keep a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military.” The troops will be brought home only in the sense that “Mrs. Clinton said the scaled-down American military force that she would maintain would stay off the streets in Baghdad and would no longer try to protect Iraqis from sectarian violence — even if it descended into ethnic cleansing.”

Matt may think that’s clear. I think there’s enough fudging-room in her position to go anywhere from a minimal presence to a perpetual war “supporting the Iraqi military” that looks exactly like what we’ve got now.

One response to “Just Hillary: publius v Eric Martin (Updated)

  1. [grumbles about Mick under his breath as he sips from his beer]

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